Andrew Larkin & Anneke Corbett: Do not delay Vermont Yankee reactor decommissioning work

Last modified: Sunday, May 04, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — We have several concerns with the Gazette editorial that supported the process known as SAFSTOR for the decommissioning of the nuclear reactor at Vernon, Vt.

SAFSTOR puts dealing with the reactor into the future for up to 60 years. Now, there are workers who are familiar with the functioning of the reactor. Sixty years from now, the experienced work force will be dead. Entergy’s plan is to invest the current $620 million decommissioning fund into an unspecified financial project so that at some far time in the future there is enough money for decommissioning.

The wisdom of this depends upon the hope that the growth of the fund will rise more rapidly than the cost of the decommissioning. Otherwise, the project is underfunded.

Vermont Yankee is a limited liability corporation owned by Entergy. If, as the Gazette editorial says, Entergy will make decisions purely on economic basis, then it is warning that as soon as the money runs out it will declare bankruptcy and leave Vermont with the bill.

There seems to be little hope that the federal government is prepared to foot the bill. Entergy plans to take $200 million from the decommissioning fund and spend it on indefinitely storing the fuel rods in dry caskets. During the time that Entergy has owned the plant, it has taken the profits and have made no investment into the cleanup fund. This should have been part of routine maintenance. Some of the fuel rods have been in wet storage for 40 years.

The editorial did say that Vermont should hold Entergy’s feet to the fire. This is the crux of the issue. Entergy has not been a good corporate citizen. The state has sued it multiple times.

According to David Deen, the Connecticut River steward, “filings with the Vermont Public Service Board showed that Yankee’s thermal discharge exceeded its permit 75 percent of the time during critical spring and fall American shad migration.”

The courts have consistently sided with the corporations. The federal government’s regulatory agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has chosen to endorse the industry in conflicts between the public good and corporate goals. There are early warning signs of what the NRC will allow.

As the Brattleboro Reformer reported in April: “Sixteen months after shutdown of the reactor at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, offsite emergency planning will no longer be needed, according to documents filed by Entergy with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Therefore, offsite emergency response plans will no longer be needed for protection of the public ...”

The company’s computer models do not forecast danger with the wet storage pools, but these bodies would hold more than enough toxic radiation to ruin the environment for many miles around.

By now we should be suspicious of computer models that say there should be no cause for alarm. After all, we were told that the disaster at Fukushima in Japan could not occur, until it happened. There remain some deniers, who say that Fukushima was a “Japanese” problem. The reactors that failed at Fukushima were GE Mark 1 boiling water reactors, the same model as the one at Vernon.

U.S. corporations were the models for the Japanese nuclear industry. There are 23 such reactors on the East Coast. They have the same vulnerabilities as the ones in Japan. The diesel engines for backup are placed in the basement, where they are vulnerable to flooding. The spent fuel rods are stored in a pool 30 feet up in the air.

The reactor at Vernon, built on a flood plain, is one that has been identified by the NRC as being vulnerable to flooding, if a dam upstream on the Connecticut River were to fail.

There are no solutions to the problems of Fukushima. The U.S. is lucky — not wise — that a similar disaster has not occurred in the U.S.

There should be time to let the reactor fuel to cool on its own. There are reasonable concerns for the workers to avoid early exposure. But we also believe that there is a need for urgency on this matter. To allow a timetable of decades for a company that has not been a good corporate citizen seems to invite disaster. If enough time is given, unlikely events will occur.

Andrew Larkin is a retired doctor and Anneke Corbett is a retired nurse. They live in Northampton.