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Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End in the US?

A battle raging in Vermont over an aging plant may be an important indicator of whether nuclear has had its day.

Nearly one year after the Fukushima disaster, 23 nuclear power plants of the same model are still operating in the United States, many of them pushing 40 years old -- and despite the risks they pose, a recent federal court decision will make it harder for states to close them down.

On January 19, federal District Court Judge Garvan Murtha ruled that the Vermont legislature had exceeded its power when it voted in 2010 not to let the Vermont Yankee nuclear-power plant operate after its 40-year operating license expires on March 21 this year. Under federal law, the judge wrote, only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the power to rule on issues related to radiation safety.

Vermont Yankee is a telling example of the dangers that nuclear power in the US could pose and of the regulatory red tape (bolstered by political might) that communities face when they try to take on the industry.

The NRC renewed Vermont Yankee's license last March despite the state legislature's desire to have the plant closed after several safety lapses. The 40-year-old plant, on the Connecticut River just north of the Massachusetts border, will stay open while the Vermont Public Service Board ponders whether the plant serves the public good. The court decision "did not preclude the state's process," says Sarah Hoffman, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Public Service Commission. The board can still judge the plant on other criteria, such as its reliability and environmental issues not related to radiation.

Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell has appealed Judge Murtha's decision.

Vermont Yankee is the poster child for the country's aging nuclear plants, says Allison Fisher of Public Citizen's Climate and Energy Project. About half of the nation's 104 nuclear power plants opened in the 1970s, and their operating licenses are beginning to expire. Indian Point 2, a longtime bugaboo of environmental activists because of its location 24 miles north of the New York City line, comes up for renewal next year. Pilgrim, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, will in June. Like Vermont Yankee, it is a General Electric Mark I boiling-water reactor -- the same model as the three that blew at Fukushima.

How Safe Are We?

If there's going to be an accident at a U.S. nuclear plant, it's going to be at one of the Mark I reactors, predicts Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear engineer who served on the state's Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant Oversight Panel in 2009.

"Fukushima showed us that it's a very unstable, unforgiving design," he says. The "fatal flaw" in the Mark I design, he explains, is that the structure containing the reactor is only a tenth the size needed to contain the pressure generated by an accident; at pressures of more than 100 pounds per square inch, the bolts that hold the structure's top down will stretch, letting radioactive gases and explosive hydrogen escape. In 1989, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recommended that Mark I reactors be retrofitted with vents, which would allow the release of radioactive material, but were supposed to relieve pressure buildup in time to prevent an explosion. At Fukushima, Gundersen says, "the vents were open, but the reactor still blew."

The NRC has known about this problem for decades, he says. In 1971 and 1972, S.H. Hanauer, a senior engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission, the NRC's predecessor, wrote to director Joseph Hendrie that the Mark I reactor's container was small enough that valve failure would lead to dangerous increases in pressure that might cause a "blowdown" -- and that the valves were "not easily inspected" and "do not have a very good reliability record."

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