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Editorial: Renewed scrutiny needed for VY

The growing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan highlights several important considerations Vermonters must ponder concerning the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in southern Vermont.
First, we must determine whether the plant’s age warrants extension of its license due to expire in 2012.
Second, because the plants are similar in design, those directly charged with oversight should conduct a thorough examination of the system’s weak points as demonstrated by Japan’s disaster: mainly, the lack of sufficient energy backup in the case of a prolonged power outage can cause the cooling system to fail and spent nuclear rods to overheat.
Third, the type of reactors made by General Electric and used at the Fukushima and Vermont Yankee plants, are known to have weak containment systems (as demonstrated in the Japanese crisis). A thorough examination of Vermont Yankee’s system needs additional review, and measures to strengthen the containment system should be explored.
Fourth, Vermont officials should review the region’s evacuation plans in case of an emergency, and develop a plan of communication that keeps the public advised with accurate, real-time information. It is crucial the public trusts federal, state and local governments to provide an honest assessment of the situation that is in the best interest of those residents nearest the crisis — and not shield the financial interests of those in charge.
Within the scope of evacuation plans, Vermont officials should reassess the safety zones required in a worst-case scenario and question whether the current process is adequate. As it stands today, according to the New York Times, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires the plant operators (that would be Entergy in our case) to alert the public within a 10-mile radius “if a dangerous plume of radioactivity will be heading their way,” and then local officials decide whether to issue evacuation orders.
In light of the recent track record of lies, intentional deception and shoddy maintenance in the operation of Vermont Yankee, does anyone in Vermont trust Entergy to be the responsible party to first tell residents they have a crisis on their hands and to begin wide-scale evacuations? And why is the safety radius set at 10 miles, if the American Embassy in Japan — based on advice from Washington regulators, according to the Times— has told Americans there to evacuate if living within a 50-mile radius of the plant?
Finally, in light of these concerns, Vermonters must ensure that there are adequate funds to cover the cost of such disasters in terms of clean-up and the nightmare of dislocation when such disaster occurs. Do the businesses and residents of Brattleboro, for example, know how they would cope if disaster struck and they were asked to leave their homes and businesses? Who pays for that disruption in people’s lives? Re-insurers? Taxpayers? Either way, the cost of nuclear power will go up because of the crisis in Japan.
We do not anticipate a similar disaster at Vermont Yankee, nor are we foes of nuclear energy. Done safely, if that is possible, it provides a relatively “green” source of energy that should be part of the nation’s energy mix. But part of the cost of nuclear energy should be to factor in the possibility of disastrous consequences and make reasonable costs are covered.
All of this places the renewal of Vermont Yankee’s license under a much more realistic prism. Aging mechanical structures have lifetime expectancies for a reason. They wear out and they start to malfunction. And we have a nuclear regulatory agency with a track reactor that suggests they rarely, if ever, say no… and yet, it’s an industry, with 104 aging reactors, that has very little experience operating plants decades beyond their original intent. In Vermont Yankee’s case, it’s a 40-year-old plant built that has lived out its expected use, and yet the NRC wants to add an additional 20-years to its operating life.
The government doesn’t grant extensions to the Space Shuttle, and we probably should think twice before routinely granting such extensions to nuclear power plants. The consequences of mistakes, after all, are equally grim.

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