It has been a year of uphill fighting for Entergy Corporation’s embattled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont. Tritium leaks came and went and came back again, a complete lack of accountability by management was demonstrated, rebuffed, addressed and brought once more to the forefront. A complete lack of faith in the company’s ability to maintain the plant at a safe operating level has all but rang the death knell for the plant.
Then came the one bright spot in the horrible year that Yankee had experienced: the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorized the plant for re-licensing in 2012. But that was no surprise at all – the NRC has never recommended against re-licensing any plant in its entire history. So, it seemed like the anti-nuke protesters had been given a slightly black eye with the NRC approval, but only a little shiner.
The plant is scheduled for shut down in March 2012. However, they are in a particularly tough spot right now: the fuel rods currently at the plant will end their useful life around November 2011. The plant currently operates on an 18-month fuel cycle and must shut down in order to transfer spent fuel rods to a cooling pool, then re-fuel with new rods. The next fuel load must be on site before the plant shuts down for re-fueling. That means Entergy will have to consider either purchasing more fuel rods (which will cost millions) for a continued operation of less than six months, or shut down early.
According to the Bennington Banner, “Yankee produces 620 megawatts of baseload power. It’s currently the lowest cost 24/7 power purchased by Vermont utilities.” Entergy’s contract with the state of Vermont is governed by a statute which states that the plant’s operation is at the discretion of the state legislature and the public service board – its license to operate can be approved or denied by them, regardless of the NRC and its decision. Entergy is expected to challenge the statute in court. While they probably will not be successful in arguing the statute to be illegal, it may very well buy them enough time to warrant re-fueling; certainly, it will allow them to operate beyond the March 2012 shut down date if the case goes to trial.
So, in the last month, a large push has begun to re-license the plant. There are compelling arguments for both sides, as the plant is the only one in the state and the cost of buying power from outside sources is ridiculously high. Shutting the plant down will cause massive repercussions throughout businesses both large and small, and some undoubtedly will leave the state for greener (in terms of monetary savings, that is) pastures. Given the current economic situation here, the last thing Vermont needs is for businesses to leave the state taking thousands upon thousands of jobs with them (along with their tax dollars and payroll that employees tend to spend at home).
But the events in Japan have put everything into a whole new light. The situation at the Fukishima Daiichi plant is worsening each day, with the possibility of a core vessel breach more than likely. While the corporate official statement is that situation is “not optimistic“, one has to wonder just how much they aren‘t saying. At a time when services are non-existent, devastation is everywhere and people are beyond panic-stricken, it seems sensible that the government would not want to add yet more worry to the population.
Yet if the U.S. Navy saw fit to move our ships even further from Japan’s coast, one has to wonder how bad things have gotten and how much worse it will get. If reactors 1 through 3 actually do go to meltdown (which may already have happened) and the situation for reactors 4 through 6 continues to deteriorate, it only seems logical that vast amounts of radiation will be emitted into the atmosphere and it is only a matter of time before the prevailing winds bring that radiation to our own shores and those of every country nearby.
Enriquo Fermi had absolutely no idea of the Pandora’s Box he opened, but once he did the initiation of the Manhattan Project should have been easy to foresee. The use of weaponized nuclear material wasn’t really a matter of who would be the first to do it, but simply a matter of when. While the United States may have won that race, it took the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima to bring the consequences to light. Attempting to use nuclear power for good rather than destruction is a great concept. But what happens to all those spent fuel rods that are radioactive long after their useful life has ended? They get stored. Apparently, that storage can be problematic – and dangerous.
We are now faced with a critical situation yet again. The events in Japan have confirmed once more that nuclear power is not necessarily as safe as the experts keep telling us it is. Vermont Yankee, which may have thought themselves experiencing a reprieve in the population’s general consensus of their ability to continue operating, has discovered that people are alarmed at what can happen when things go horribly awry at a nuclear facility. We are subject to earthquakes like anywhere else on the planet; typically, the ones we experience are relatively small by most standards and the majority of us hardly notice. Conversely, it is no comfort to anyone that the Fukishima Daiichi plant and Vermont Yankee were both built by GE using the same design specifications back in the 1970’s.
I’ve always been a proponent of nuclear energy. Mostly because I felt it was safe and relatively cheap. Chernobyl made me re-think that assessment. Fukishima has brought that home to roost once more. An earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the backup power systems caused the incident in Japan. Why there are not redundant systems in place in case of catastrophic failure is beyond me – I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but seems like a nuclear power plant with SIX reactors should have a backup to their backup plan (a "Plan C", if you will) in the event that their power is terminated by accident or design (think sabotage). You need electricity to power pumps that push water into the pools – so why not have a gravity system in place in the event of a power failure? In the ‘80s, the tech company I worked for used that very same concept to protect their million dollar water-cooled mainframe computers.
If Japan, the most prepared country on earth in terms of natural disasters, grossly miscalculated how devastating nature can be to their nuclear facilities, where does that leave the rest of us?
Photo of Vermont Yankee courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vermont_Yankee_Nuclear_Power_Plant.jpg
Photo of Fukushima Daiichi courtesy of http://www.anticapitalistes.net/spip.php?article2381