Some More Than Others

We’re all Japanese now. Some of us more than others.

I’m in the latter group. In Vermont, we’ve been trying for years – and we’re close to success – to shut the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor in Vernon, in the southeast corner of the state, where Vermont joins New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

It’s a General Electric boiling water reactor with a Mark I (GE BWR Mk I) containment system, the same design as the reactors falling apart at Fukushima Daiichi. No one’s expecting a 9.0 earthquake or tsunami in southeast Vermont, but we don’t need either.

Entergy, the Louisiana-based conglomerate is mismanaging the plant into the ground. The series of Homer Simpsonesque mishaps would be funny if they didn’t involve serious threats to human health and the environment – collapsed cooling tower, fires, lost fuel rods. For over a year, radioactive material has been leaking into the groundwater from underground pipes that Entergy’s managers swore under oath did not exist.

In 1972, the year Vermont Yankee commenced nuclear fission, an official at the Atomic Energy Commission (forerunner of today’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission) warned the design of the GE BWR Mk I was badly flawed and failure of its cooling system could lead to catastrophe, as we’re seeing in Japan.

Why would General Electric design such a shoddy reactor? Because they were cheaper and easier to build than if they’d designed a decent machine. Good idea guys, let’s cut corners with nuclear devices. Okay, but once the defects were acknowledged we count on our government “watchdogs” to shut the damn things down, for safety’s sake, right? No, can’t do that, as another official noted at the time, because it “could well be the end of nuclear power.”

Last week, as the reactors at Fukushima were blazing out of control, the NRC granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year extension on its license. Since 2006, the NRC has allowed Yankee to operate at 120 percent of its design capacity. Yes, this 40-year-old reactor with the well-know catastrophic design flaws managed by a company so maintenance-negligent that pieces of the facility just fall over.

You think your government is acting in your best interests? No way. The NRC does what the nuclear industry demands – your life and your kids’ lives don’t even enter the thought process. Why should the NRC be any different that the FDA, OHSA or EPA?

Happily, when Entergy bought the plant in 2002, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the state that gave the state’s legislative and executive branches the authority to issue – or withhold – a certificate of public good. In lay terms, Vermont is the only state that can shut down a nuke. The state senate voted overwhelmingly last year to close the dump and our new governor ran on a “shut it down” platform.

Entergy has more or less announced its intention to sue Vermont, even though it signed an agreement giving the state authority over Yankee. (“When we say ‘legally binding,’ we mean for you, not fur us!”) They’ll claim only the NRC can deny a permit to a nuke and a state cannot pre-empt the feds. My prediction: Entergy will win the pre-emption argument, but Vermont will win the case, on grounds that Vermont Yankee has polluted our groundwater and the state has a right to protect its natural resources, which fall outside the NRC’s purview.

If I’m honest (and selfish), I’ll admit Vermont Yankee could melt down and it would have little effect on me. The border that circles us both is political, not ecological. Wind and water currents would carry radiation to the east and south. I live to the north and west. On the other hand, two GE BWR Mk Is – Nine Mile Point One and James Fitzpatrick in Oswego, New York are upwind of my house. Where are you, Andrew Cuomo?

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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