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About Vermont Yankee

Pardon me if I'm skeptical about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, its owners, and the people who are supposed to make sure it runs safely.

I helped to supervise news coverage of the federal hearings on giving Vermont Yankee its operating license in 1972. I lived about 15 miles from the plant from then until 2005.

It's my misfortune to know all about construction snafus, bogus evacuation plans, and nuclear alert radios that people have to turn off because every thunderstorm sets them off.

I know about federal regulators who, once they sign off on an issue, never go back to it. For Vermont Yankee, that means reports that emerged years later about shoddy construction work -- for instance, workers who accidentally sheared off the heads of giant bolts intended to hold the plant together, and covered up by gluing the bolt heads back in place -- will never really be investigated by federal authorities.

I know about Vermont Yankee executives who never, ever concede that anything unexpected might happen, and when it does, they assure us that everything is OK, no plants or children were injured, and their plans and procedures have giant cushions to absorb any problems and make them disappear.

I mean, the plant's Web site is www.safecleanreliable.com. Really.

So when the big cooling tower collapsed last year at the plant, and when problems developed with the plant's steam dryer, and when another cooling tower had problems this summer, everybody acted surprised and baffled. How could these things happen?

These things happen because nobody in power is willing to ask difficult questions about the safety of a 36-year-old nuclear reactor located a quarter mile from two public schools. These things happen because the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a hear-no-evil mindset about its oversight of the nuclear industry and closes off questions that could lead to uncomfortable places.

For instance, the steam-dryer problems very likely occurred because Vermont Yankee was allowed to boost its power output by 20 percent. In my last job, I oversaw news coverage showing that every significant "uprate" at similar nuclear plants had produced problems with the steam dryer. Every one. But that dismal record wasn't part of the discussion.

In 2005, I became managing editor of <MI>The Stowe Reporter<D> and moved a couple of hours away from the Vermont Yankee plant. It's striking how that relatively short distance can alter people's views of the Vernon plant.

Here, people see Vermont Yankee as a source of cheap energy, and they want to milk it for all they can. Safety issues? We'll give them lip service, but keep those kilowatts coming.

If you live near the plant, you tend to see Vermont Yankee nervously, the way you might a deranged neighbor. He might never go off, but if he does, we're in a heap of trouble.

And as news about little problems seeps out, the neighbors' sense of uneasiness creeps higher.

Consider this reassuring news, via Associated Press:

"The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant released more radiation in 2007 than in previous years, an expected result of its boosted power output, but the levels remained below the state's limits to protect public health, according to a Vermont Department of Health report issued Friday.

"'At no time has Vermont Yankee posed a measurable risk to public health,' said Health Commissioner Dr. Wendy Davis. 'However, we are keeping a constant and close watch on radiation measurements at the site boundary and elsewhere around the plant in Vernon.'"

That's our person talking, mind you, not the nuclear plant. Nobody's really worried. Yeah, the radiation is up, but -- there is always a but.

So what about those sheared-off bolts, those cooling-tower problems, the emergency shutdown of the reactor in 2007? What about the fact that every ounce of nuclear fuel used at Vermont Yankee in the past 36 years is still stored there, outgrowing a storage pool of water that has been rearranged several times to get the fuel rods even closer together, and now overflowing into steel casks that are stored on the grounds of the plant?

Not to worry, indeed.

Things were slippery enough when Vermont Yankee was owned by a consortium of New England utilities. Sure, they might have been slippery, but at least they lived here.

Now Vermont Yankee is owned by Entergy, a Louisiana-based company, and the rate of slipperiness has taken a quantum leap. The company seems to be taking shortcuts, even though its nuclear plant has the potential to make life unlivable for thousands of years where Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts meet.

And soon, Entergy will be immune from the ramifications if any corner-cutting goes bad. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is allowing Entergy to spin off Vermont Yankee and four other nuclear plants -- in Massachusetts, New York and Michigan -- to a new company, Enexus Energy Corp.

The federal agency rejected criticism that Enexus will be saddled with so much debt, it might have trouble paying for any fixes the plants need and might not be able to cover the costs of decommissioning the plants when their useful lives are over.

Perhaps money is why Entergy is pushing so hard to extend the operating license for Vermont Yankee. It expires in 2012; Entergy wants to extend it to 2032. That's another 20 years to make money off the plant. By 2032, the plant will be 60 years old and, with no real prospects for a federal nuclear-waste dump, the pile of used radioactive fuel rods outside the plant might rival Mt. Mansfield.

This spinoff arrangement is "sort of an uncomfortable structure to us," says Michael Marriotte, executive director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, a group based in Takoma Park, MD. "We think somebody ought to be looking into it, either at the congressional or agency level. There really is nobody overseeing this and looking out for whether this is a good idea for taxpayers or consumers."

No kidding.

Tom Kearney is managing editor of The Stowe Reporter. This piece was originally printed in that paper on Thursday, August 7, 2008. The presenters of this week's forum on Vermont Yankee requested that Tom Kearney's piece appear in The Valley Reporter.

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