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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Shutdown: Vermont Yankee Next?

Air Date: Week of

With electric-industry restructuring well underway, many states are taking a second look at the costs and benefits of operating their aging nuclear power plants. The 26-year old Vermont Yankee plant is licensed to run until 2012. But state officials and company owners are considering shutting it down early. Tatiana Schrieber has the story.


CURWOOD: With electric industry restructuring well underway, many states are taking a second look at the cost and benefits of operating their aging nuclear power plants, among them the folks of Vermont. The 26-year-old Vermont Yankee plant in the southern part of the state is licensed to run until 2012. But state officials and company owners are considering shutting it down early. And they're getting lots of advice from area residents, including those in neighboring Massachusetts where the Yankee Rowe plant closed its doors 6 years ago. Tatiana Schreiber has our story.

(Milling crowd)

MAN: I have this sheet and this sheet of people who have signed up to speak, And I will ask...

SCHREIBER: Business leaders, Vermont Yankee workers, plant managers, And local residents crowd a Brattleboro elementary school to tell state officials what they think should happen to the local nuclear plant. They want input to a Vermont public service department study that's comparing the economic value of nuclear power to alternatives.

MAN: If Vermont Yankee goes away for no good reason, there's going to be 540 jobs leaving the state, probably. I'll probably leave because I can't make any decent living.

WOMAN: Has anybody estimated how much it's going to cost to store the atomic waste that we are creating for at least 100,000 years? Where is the figure? A hundred thousand years of storage. Who has that figure?

SCHREIBER: The tension at this meeting reflects decades of debate over nuclear power. Vermont Yankee's in Vernon, a rural community a few miles from Brattleboro along a wide curve of the Connecticut River. No one disputes the fact that it's an economic engine for the region. The plant employs over 500 workers at an average wage of $48,000 a year. Bruce Wigget, chief financial manager, says without the nuclear plant electricity generated by fossil fuels over the past 26 years would have pumped over 100 million tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. His calculations don't include the health or environmental costs of the low-level radiation released by the plant over its lifetime. The public service department study won't address this, either. But activists in the area say there are significant health and safety concerns to be considered, both with the ongoing operation of the plant and with its closing. They say lessons could be learned from across the state border in Massachusetts.

(Knocking; a dog barks. A woman answers the door. "... the kitchen; actually, we're having some lunch...")

SCHREIBER: The Citizens Awareness Network works out of Debbie Katz's home in Rowe, Massachusetts, some 20 miles from Vermont Yankee and just 4 miles from the closed Yankee Rowe plant, now in the process of being dismantled. The house is down winding dirt roads in the sparsely populated rural community. One of the group's biggest concerns is whether nuclear power has affected health.

KATZ: People are calling us all the time with issues of health and lupus and cancers and multi-birth-defected children. We have a very high rate of children in the school system with learning disabilities, And disabled children. We don't believe this is coincidental.

SCHREIBER: The citizen's group doesn't blame all these problems on releases from Yankee Rowe or Vermont Yankee, but they do believe that a combination of effects, from radiation and contaminants from other sources, could have played a role. At the group's request, the Massachusetts Department of Health did an epidemiological study to see if people exposed to radiation releases from Yankee Rowe were at increased risk.

KNORR: We did conclude that we saw an excess of prevalence of Down's Syndrome from the records that we looked at.

SCHREIBER: Robert Knorr is with the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health Assessment. He says the only known risk factor for Down's Syndrome, which is caused by a chromosomal abnormality, is the mother's age.

KNORR: If you adjust for maternal age, we still had an excess prevalence of Down's Syndrome. So that wasn't the answer.

SCHREIBER: The study showed about a 4-fold increase in Down's Syndrome, as well as an unusually high level of multiple myeloma, a fairly rare cancer that's been associated with exposure to radiation. Knorr doesn't think there's enough evidence now to link the health problems to either of the power plants, but he has asked the Centers for Disease Control to assist with follow up studies. The Citizens Awareness Network wants to see an end to the constant low-level emissions from regular operations at Vermont Yankee, but they're also worried about radiation releases during the process of dismantling the reactor when it shuts down and its radiated materials are shipped out. Debbie Katz shows me a picture of a worker standing next to the reactor vessel at Yankee Rowe.

KATZ: This vessel, to take out, filled with concrete, was over 500 tons. I mean these are massive things that have to be moved along roads and railroads.

SCHREIBER: Katz fears the accident potential when these parts are moved. At Yankee Rowe, the irradiated materials were immediately shipped to the low- level waste dump at Barnwell, South Carolina. For Vermont Yankee, Katz's group advocates keeping them on site for 30 years or more to allow the radioactivity to naturally decay.

(Indoor industrial fans)

SCHREIBER: At Vermont Yankee the reactor itself is enclosed in an 8-story building.


WILLIAMS: Now we're in the radiologically controlled area, And to get back out at this point we'll have to pass through those monitors.

SCHREIBER: Rob Williams takes me up several floors to see how the spent fuel is stored. I'm gazing into a deep pool of blue water packed with the long metal fuel assemblies.

WILLIAMS: That is all of the spent fuel that's been produced here at this plant since back in 1972 when we started up. We're looking right now at expanding this pool's capacity.

SCHREIBER: If Yankee wins approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, fuel could be stored here until 2008. That's still 4 years shy of the end of the operating license. The issue of what to do with this highly radioactive waste after that is still unresolved.

(High-pitched sounds and ambient voices)

SCHREIBER: As we leave the plant, radiation monitors indicate I haven't been contaminated on my tour.


SCHREIBER: The need for constant, careful controls, And Vermont Yankee's ability to maintain them, has come under scrutiny recently by the Union of Concerned Scientists. David Lochbaum is the nuclear safety engineer for the group. He says last summer the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found several serious design flaws at the plant, some of which affect critical safety systems. For example, there was a valve in the emergency generator system that he says could have failed under accident conditions.

LOCHBAUM: A lot of the instrumentation that's available in the control room for the operators to monitor plant conditions and respond accordingly would have been lost. So that one failure of that one valve could have led to a cascading series of events that would have been quite, quite severe.

SCHREIBER: Activists fear Vermont Yankee's increasingly dangerous to operate under the twin pressures of aging materials and the need to compete against other sources of power in the environment of deregulation. Plant spokesman Rob Williams disagrees.

WILLIAMS: There is absolutely no incentive to cut corners on safety. Our board of directors has just expressed its confidence in our safety philosophy by authorizing the largest budget that we've ever had, And that's to promote long-term reliability, which will bring long-term competitiveness. In the era of deregulation we spend more at this plant, not less.

SCHREIBER: Vermont Yankee has recently invested millions of dollars upgrading equipment, repairing cracks in the core shroud, bringing design blueprints up to date, And hiring engineering staff. Williams believes the plant can run safely and economically not only until 2012, but beyond if the owners decide to seek an extension on the license. But Debbie Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network says that's not what's happened at other reactors in New England. Five have shut down before their licenses expired.

KATZ: You know, the truth is that Vermont Yankee will shut down no matter what. We learned this at Rowe. It was a tragic moment. No matter what happens, Vermont Yankee will shut down. And the question is when.

SCHREIBER: The moment was tragic, Katz says, because the community near the Massachusetts plant wasn't prepared, And she's urging Vermonters to put an economic development plan in place in advance. Ultimately, Vermont Yankee's fate is up to the plant's owners, a consortium of New England utility companies, And while they wait for the outcome of economic studies they've put the plant up for sale. So far, a buyer hasn't stepped forward. For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Brattleboro.



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