Is the Era of Nuclear Power Coming to an End in the US?
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"That's not my understanding," responds Public Citizen's Allison Fisher. The reason for the time limit, she says, was because a nuclear plant contains thousands of components, and a breakdown is more likely the more those parts age. But not only is the NRC relicensing 40-year-old plants for another 20 years, she says; the industry is "pushing them to produce more power, a lot harder than they were designed for."
It wouldn't take an earthquake-tsunami combination to cause a nuclear accident, environmentalists contend. A blackout, terrorist attack, flooding, human error, or any combination thereof could cut off the electricity that powers the pumps that cool the reactor and the spent-fuel pools and keep them from blowing up, they say.
What We Can Learn from Vermont
Vermont's Public Service Board, a three-member panel, still has to decide whether to approve letting Vermont Yankee keep running. Though the court decision barred it from considering safety issues, it can still consider the economic effects on Vermont and the environmental issues surrounding decommissioning the plant and cleaning up the site, says Sarah Hoffman.
The plant was built by a group of eight New England utilities, and the original deal required it to sell them power at a discount. When Entergy bought it, it was required to set one rate that would last a full year, providing a stable price for customers, Hoffman explains. That agreement also expires on March 21, and the area's utilities have begun purchasing most of their power from other sources -- hydropower from Quebec, wind from New Hampshire, and to the dismay of environmental activists, nuclear from the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, which in in 1977-78 was the scene of the Northeast's first big anti-nuclear protests.
"I don't think anybody's worried about our utilities having enough power," says Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. It's likely that Vermont Yankee will end up selling all its power out of state under the new license, he adds, as it has not signed any new contracts with utilities in the state.
Others say the board could also consider the viability of Entergy's evacuation plan, which currently covers the area within a 10-mile radius of the plant.
The PSB is now hearing arguments on whether it should only consider evidence presented up through 2009, as Entergy wants, or consider new evidence, such as Fukushima and a 2010 leak of tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, into the Connecticut River.
The NRC's Sheehan says the radioactivity that leaked, which has been detected near the river's west bank, was "well within permissible limits." By the time it reaches the river's center, it will be diluted enough to be "virtually undetectable."
Entergy has "sentinel wells" to check groundwater contamination, he adds, and was able to find the leak's source in an underground drain box. "We were satisfied that they had done the right things, with the caveat that they have to continue."
George Harvey of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, a Brattleboro-based antinuclear group, agrees that the tritium leak was relatively minor. The issue, he and other activists say, is that it raised serious questions about Entergy officials' honesty. The tritium "leaked from underground pipes that Entergy had sworn didn't exist," says Paul Burns.
Another issue is that Vermont has not granted Entergy a permit to take water from the Connecticut River. The state has filed a lawsuit on that issue.
Environmental activists also question Entergy's upkeep of the aging plant. In 2007, a wooden cooling tower collapsed. "How bad must your maintenance be for a cooling tower to actually collapse?" wonders Burns. "It's astonishing."