On December 29, the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor was shut down for good, cancelled 18 years before its license expired. The shutdown comes after thousands of protest actions; widespread uncontrolled leaks of radioactive tritium; the shocking collapse of a cooling tower, operator mismanagement, lying and cover-ups, and the state legislature’s 2010 passage of a “shut-down by 2012” law–a statute later voided by a federal court. Entergy Corp.’s surrender announcement mentioned only “economic concerns.”
Safety conscious Vermonters stood up and sat-in, petitioned, lobbied and blocked the gates for decades, working to see the 42-year-old unit shuttered. The “Shut It Down” affinity group was arrested over and over protesting the rickety operation they called a public health hazard akin to reckless endangerment. The legislature’s decision came in February 2010, and that November Entergy unsuccessfully put the wreck up for sale. Critics mockingly put a bogus “For Sale” ad on the Web, calling the reactor a “quaint Vermont fixer-upper from the last millennium” with “tasty, pre-tritiated drinking water.”
The reference was to radioactive tritium leaks from V.Y. that made a laughing stock of the industry’s mantra of “clean nuclear.” The AP reported at length in June 2011 on tritium leaking from at least 48 reactors across the country. A whistleblower told the AP, “You got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve never been inspected.”
In 2010, Entergy’s representatives were caught lying to state legislators, repeatedly swearing under oath that there were no underground pipes at V.Y. Indeed there are. The AP reported that leaks of tritium in concentrations 125 times the EPA drinking-water standard were found in test wells there in 2010. The EPA limit is 20,000 picocuries-per-liter, but one V.Y. test well had 2.5 million picocuries-per-liter.
Half of the US’s reactors are leaking tritium at levels above the EPA’s drinking water limit. The AP reported: 397,000 picocuries-per-liter at Tennessee’s Watts Bar unit in 2005—20 times the EPA standard; 4 million at Hatch in Georgia in 2003—200 times the limit; 750,000 at Seabrook in New Hampshire in 1999—nearly 38 times the standard; and 4.2 million at Palo Verde in Arizona, in 1993—210 times the limit.
Leaking tritium, strontium, cobalt and cesium called “safe, reliable, secure and successful”
The AP noted that when tritium is detected, it often means that “more powerful radioactive isotopes that are spilled at the same time.” At Ft. Calhoun near Omaha, cesium-137 was found with tritium in 2007. Strontium-90 was discovered with tritium at Indian Point, 24 miles north of Manhattan. In 2010, cobalt-60 was found with the tritium leaking from Vermont Yankee.
Still, boosters like former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, writing about the shutdown for NuclearMatters.com, dare to say, “Nuclear energy is safe, reliable, secure, and 100% carbon-free. This 24-7, 365 [-day-a-year] always-on source of electricity is key to our country’s success.” Vermont Yankee is so safe that its 690 tons of savagely radioactive waste fuel is stored in a pool without backup cooling systems or backup generators. Can you say “Fukushima”?
Mr. Gregg’s “always-on” BS insults the intelligence, as if reactors never close during refueling, accidents, or when globally warmed rivers and lakes grow too hot for cooling water. In 2004, V.Y. was hastily switched off when a large fire blazed through the turbine building. Indian Point’s two reactors had nine unplanned shutdowns between 2007 and 2012–due to a steam boiler rupture, a transformer explosion, a loss of generator power, a failed generator delay, a failed feedwater pump, and blocked cooling system intake valves–according to Gar Smith in his 2012 book “Nuclear Roulette.”
Smith found the five worst reactors were Davis-Besse in Ohio, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California, Indian Point, and Vermont Yankee. Luckily, San Onofre and Vermont Yankee have since closed, but, as former Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Peter Bradford says, the others still threaten to “turn a billion-dollar investment into a $2 billion clean-up in 90 minutes.”
John LaForge works for Nukewatch, a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly newsletter.