Log Cabin Chronicles

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power - All Fall Down?

CHRIS BRAITHWAITE
Publisher, The Chronicle
Barton, Vermont

POSTED: 09.18.06

Burrowing through our own archives back to 1983, we found a story about Vermont Yankee. The Legislature was worried that, when the plant shut down in 2007, there wouldn't be any money set aside to clean up the mess.

The proposal would have taxed the ratepayers who burn Vermont Yankee power to build a $423-million "decommissioning" fund. We noted that the bill to users of Orleans Village power would top $400,000 over the following 20 years. Barton Village's power customers wouldn't pay anything towards Yankee's retirement. When the state's utilities were being wooed as investor-owners of the nuclear plant, which opened in 1972, Barton Electric had the wisdom to say "No thank you."

Anyway, the interesting thing to us about this old news is that, according to the license it had in 1983, Vermont Yankee should shut down this year.

Instead, as we all know, its new owners have won permission to increase its power output by 20 percent, and extend its life to 2012. The owner, Entergy Vermont, is pushing hard to extend Yankee's license yet another 20 years, to 2032.

Meanwhile we're treated to pictures of water pouring from a collapsed cooling tower structure at the plant, and news that a stuck valve has, more recently, forced the plant to shut down again.

We're told that, as our friend and columnist Loudon Young liked to say about a sick cow, these injuries aren't very close to the plant's heart - that nothing like a nuclear accident occurred, or was threatened.

But it seems pretty obvious that the damn thing is falling down. It's old. It's past its design life. Bits and pieces are falling off or rusting shut.

And what's going on in this creaky structure is nuclear fission, a process second only to fusion in its ability to release enormous quantities of energy from a frighteningly small amount of stuff - not to mention dangerous radiation.

A nuclear plant isn't like an old pickup we can nurse over the back roads until the floorboards rust out or a wheel falls off. It's more like an airplane - with no safe compromise between being in prime working order and unfit to fly.

Even a "minor," nonfatal nuclear mishap could have enormous economic consequences for the "Green Mountain State," the place with no billboards and clean air and placid cows turning out organic milk that we process into gourmet cheeses. How would "America's Chernobyl" look on a license plate?

Why are we helpless witnesses to this folly?

Money is one good answer. Poor planning might be another.

The consortium of utilities that formed Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation to build and run the plant sold it in 2002, as it neared the end of its reasonable life span. When it bought the old plant, Entergy must have gambled that it could squeeze a lot more power out of it than it had been designed for. So far, it's been a good bet.

Officially, Vermont seems to have been a passive partner in this gamble - an enabler, in the language of substance abuse.

Maybe the fact that we haven't come up with an alternative power source has something to do with it. Vermont Yankee is said to supply a third of our electricity. That would be expensive to replace on the open market.

But whatever we have to do to keep the lights on, coaxing power out of an aging, unsafe nuclear plant shouldn't be on the list of possibilities.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch are both calling for a bill that would give states the power to order an independent safety assessment of nuclear plants that seek to exceed their design limits in terms of output or years of operation.

That would be at least a good start toward bringing Vermont's runaway reactor under control.


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Copyright © 2007 Chris Braithwaite/Barton Chronicle/09.06