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Greenfield talk examines Vermont Yankee reactor risks

And then disaster hit the Fukushima nuclear plants, with the same Mark 1 reactors as the Vermont Yankee plant.

Gundersen, a former nuclear plant operator, shared his concerns about the Vernon, Vt., reactor with a Citizens for Emergency Preparedness gathering of about 80 at All Souls Church.

When he returned to Japan in September for the second time in seven months, Gundersen told Tuesday’s gathering, he found “a fundamental shift” in the public attitude that was much more skeptical of governmental authorities and of their attempts to cover up the March 2011 accident tied to an earthquake and tsunami.

Thousands of demonstrators turned out in Tokyo this week in opposition to nuclear power and the possibility of restarting Japanese nuclear reactors 20 months after the massive accident.

“We’re seeing … a quiet rebellion being led by women,” said Gunderson, pointing to $500 billion in damage from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant “The cost is astronomical. … Eighty-two percent of the Japanese don’t want nuclear power. I don’t think the tsunami of public opinion is over.”

Gundersen said it doesn’t make sense, given the enormity of the Fukushima accident, how the nuclear industry doesn’t take that into account when it considers the risk-benefit equation of commercial nuclear power plants. “You can have 40 great years,” Gundersen said, referring to the Vernon reactor, which was granted a new operating license by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission the same day that a 9.0 magnitude earthquake led to the sequence of events that led to a series of meltdowns at three of the Fukushima plants. “But you can have one bad day and it wipes out the 40 good years.” Gundersen, who has worked as a Burlington, Vt.based nuclear consultant, chaired the state’s Vermont Yankee Public Oversight Panel and worked as a consultant to the Vermont Legislature prior to the relicensing of the plant.

The Japanese reactors had the same Mark 1 boiling-water reactors that were being criticized by nuclear engineers even before those at the Vermont Yankee plant went online in 1972, said Gundersen.

“In 1972, we knew this design was risky,” he said. In fact, during an NRC analysis of the Fukushima accident one week into the events taking place, NRC regional administrator Chuck Casto was quoted as calling Mark 1 “the worst one of all the containments we have.” Modifications to the containment — likened to a pressure cooker with its top bolted down — have included straps to keep it from lifting upward in case of an accident, and a pressure release valve on its side to keep it from exploding.

In the case of Fukushima, loss of electrical power because of the earthquake kept the valve from operating.

All of those potential weaknesses behind the accident at the Japanese plant — including the wiring that was unable to stand the temperatures, pressures and saltwater — were understood in the 1970s and 1980, said Gundersen. “All of that was on the table before the accident ever happened,” he said.

“I hear people say Fukushimi Dai-ichi can’t happen here because we’re not going to get a 65-foot tsunami going up the Connecticut River, and we’re not going to have a Richter 9 earthquake,” Gundersen told the gathering. But then again, the 41-year-old Vernon plant wasn’t built to be as strong in terms of seismic integrity as the four Fukushima reactors that were shut down by the accident.

But, just a couple of weeks after superstorm Sandy, which forced New Jersey’s Oyster Creek nuclear plant to be put on alert, Gundersen said that one of the greatest threats to nuclear plant safety occur when they are threatened with loss of power.

“The tsunami wiped out the diesels, and then the diesels couldn’t run the electricity that was designed to cool the plant,” he said. But even if the diesels had been left intact, the tsunami wiped out the pumps that were designed to cool those diesel generators. And Vermont Yankee’s pumps on the Connecticut River are subject to the same phenomena, he said. The pumps at Oyster Creek, he said, were within 6 inches of flooding.

The same threat can come from terrorists as well as from mother nature, said Gunderson, illustrating with the story of three Norwegians on a sailboat in Cape Cod Bay who innocently dropped anchor one night last summer, 30 feet from the intake structure of the Pilgrim plant. One big difference between Fukushima and Vermont Yankee is that the Japanese operators were using mixed oxide fuel, which is much higher in plutonium concentration than the fuel used in this country — and generates much more heat. On the other hand, he said, the Vermont Yankee reactor contains about 1,000 pounds of plutonium, and about 10 percent of the power from the plant comes from the splitting of plutonium.

“The ‘mox fuel,’” he said, just makes the problem a little worse.

If Gundersen believed at one time that climate change was a reason to back nuclear power, he told the Greenfield audience that taking into consideration the entire nuclear fuel cycle, the nuclear industry still contributes to some generating of greenhouse gases and that the efficiency of nuclear plants is reduced when plants are forced to reduce operations because of increased river temperatures or dry conditions, which appear to be becoming more frequent.

In fact, Gundersen said he believes that the economics of nuclear plants — especially older, smaller plants like Vermont Yankee, which are forced to retrofit and replace expensive aging parts — make them unlikely investments for the future. He predicted that the Vernon reactor, which last year received a new 20-year license from the NRC last year and is currently undergoing a state license to show that it makes economic sense for the state — will probably have to shut down by 2015 or 2016 to replace its condenser, at a cost of $100 million or more, with an equal amount required for post-Fukushima modifications.

Meanwhile, he said the cost of investing heavily in renewable energy — as Germany has done successfully — will continue to make more and more sense.

“What we’re seeing is that cost of solar is plummeting while nuclear is rising,” he said, adding that he often hears the rebuttal that the sun doesn’t shine day and night. “But if you believe that man can build a repository to store nuclear waste for a quarter of a million years, surely those same people can find a way to store electricity overnight.”

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