NEW YORK – In what could be the first backlash against the Obama Administration’s warm endorsement of nuclear power as a climate saving energy technology, the Vermont State Senate voted 26 to four Wednesday to shut down that state’s radioactive tritium leak-prone nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee.
A leak releasing radioactive tritium into the groundwater was discovered lat the plant last month. Vermonters have also been upset by misstatements issued to the public and in testimony by plant owners and a cooling tower that collapsed at the plant last year.
The move by Vermont’s Senate represents a rare foray by the public and its representatives into nuclear regulation, especially at a time when the Administration of Barack Obama has announced a new reliance on nulear power and an $8.3 billion – to grow to $54 billion – ackage of federal loan guarantees for nuclear build-outs in the United States and kicking the tires of old plants to grant engineered life expectancy extensions to aged US reactors.
But the decision by the Vermont Senate casts deeps doubts domestically and internationally as to whether the newly announced position of the Obama administration to build nuclear power plants to reduce energy dependency and clean up the atmosphere – nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide – are consistent with the notion that nuclear power plants are clean, well run, and worth building.
Under Vermont law, any extension of the plant’s license beyond 2012 would have to be approved by both houses – Vernont’s Senate and House of Reprsentatives. Unless the Senate reverses itself and the House also approves an extension, the plant must close by March of that year.
All members of the House and the Senate are up for re-election in November, raising the possibility that a vote next year on the plant’s fate could yield a different outcome. Democrats have large majorities in both chambers, which analysts suggest means the decision to shut Yankee will stand.
Growing tradition of public nuclear regulation
Should the Vermont legislature continue on its current path, it will be the first time in more than 20 years that the US public or its representatives has decided to close a reactor. In 1989, Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California permanently shut down the Rancho Seco nuclear plant in Herald after a public referendum voted to shut it down due to reliability concerns.
The 620 megawatt Vermont Yankee power plant, located near the Connecticut River in Vernon in Windham County, about 225 kilometers northwest of Boston, can power about 620,000 homes.
Vermont’s governor, Jim Douglas, a Republican, told reporters after the Senate’s vote that he and other governors had met with Obama on Monday and that Obama had spoken “passionately” about the need for more reactors. White House press officials confirmed the meetings.
The Vermont Senate vote shows the industry still faces major regulatory hurdles as it tries to up-shift into construction mode for the first time since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which threatened the eastern United States with a nuclear meltdown.
Since 2007, the NRC has received applications to build 28 new reactors. Obama’s State of the Union address last month promised to get on with that build as part of US commitments to lowering greenouse gas emissions – a position Bellona deplores.
“It’s ironic that at the same time the president is advancing a strong commitment to nuclear energy, that we’re taking a step in another direction here,” said Douglas, who had sought to delay a vote until public outrage about several recent missteps at the plant cooled.
Operational extension request for Yankee
In the Vermont Senate’s small chamber packed with plant opponents, the Vermont senators voiced frustration over the collapse of a cooling tower at Yankee in 2007, inaccurate testimony by the plant’s owner, Louisiana-based nuclear operator Entergy, as well as recent leaks of radioactive tritium at the 38-year-old plant. Most nuclear power plants are designed to operate for 30 years.
Vermont Yankee, which went online in 1972, was originally designed to operate for 40 years. Its owner, Louisiana-based Entergy, has turned to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – whose five-member structure is undergoing a shift to staunch nuclear supporters – to grant the plant a 20 year operational extension.
But Yankee, Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek, and other plants troubled by tritium leaks have been under consideration by the Administration and the NRC for operational extensions of at least 20 years. The process surrounding granting these extensons have turned up troubling facts: some 40 to 50 percent of the United State’s nuclear power plant fleet has tritium leakage.
Exelon’s Oyster Creek recently won a 20-year extension of its initial 40-year license, although, to the anger of its opponents, plant owners announced a few days later that it, too, was leaking tritium.
Entergy had apparently counted on the same state of affairs for Vermont Yankee. Yankee officials had testified under oath to two state panels that there were no buried pipes at Vermont Yankee that could leak tritium, although there were. No tritium has turned up in drinking water, but even plant supporters expressed dismay at the leak and the misstatements.
“If the board of directors and management of Entergy were thoroughly infiltrated by antinuclear activists, I do not think they could have done a better job of destroying their own case,” said one senator, Randolph Brock III, a Republican State Senator from the St. Albans district of Vermont, and has a history of casting friendly votes for the plant.
In the hours of debate, one virtue of nuclear power emphasized by proponents at the national level — production of electricity without emissions of greenhouse gases — was hardly mentioned, even by supporters, the New York Times reported.
Plant owner says fight ‘far from over’
Entergy vowed in a statement sent to reporters to fight on.
“The effort to win a 20-year renewal of Vermont Yankee’s operating license is far from over,” Entergy said in their statement.
“We remain determined to prove our case to the legislature, state officials and the Vermont public.”
The company faces a struggle in soothing the concerns of lawmakers and their constituents. In debate, senators cited estimates of over $1 billion for decommissioning the plant, although only about $450 million is on hand for the job. Tritium leaks could raise the bill, they said, according to various news reports.
Curt Hébert, a spokesman for the company, said that Entergy had put five senior employees allegedly responsible for misstatements about leaks have been put on administrative leave and that “all the discipline taken had financial consequences for the employees involved.”
On Wednesday, NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said his agency would investigate the issue of the company’s providing false information to the state.
Tritium and its dangers
Tritium is a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen that occurs naturally in very small amounts in groundwater. It is also a byproduct of power production in nuclear plants. But the NRC said the leak reported at Vermont Yankee in January posed no immediate threat to public health and safety.
Entergy said there has been no tritium levels found in drinking water wells or the Connecticut River.
Tritium contamination, however, is not unique to Vermont Yankee.
Over the past few years, the NRC has investigated tritium releases at several reactors, including Entergy’s Indian Point and FitzPatrick in New York, Braidwood in Illinois and Oyster Creek.
The 104 nuclear power reactors in the United States provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.