In a perfect world, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant would have shut down on schedule last March, the decommissioning fund would have been fully funded, and everyone in Vermont would be living green and happily ever after.
But it’s not a perfect world – Vermont Yankee, with a design life of 40 years, started its 41st year of operation last March 22, despite promises to shut down, despite an act of the Vermont Legislature requiring it to shut down, and despite almost 40 years of public protest which will continue this weekend.
On Sunday, July 1, following a rally on the Brattleboro Commons, a contingent of protesters will caravan by bike and bus for six miles to the gates of Vermont Yankee here, where some will engage in non-violent civil disobedience, risking arrest. The action, organized by the Safe and Green (SAGE) Campaign of Brattleboro, is one of many protests organized by many different groups over the past three decades.
An anti-Vermont Yankee sing-a-long in April featured Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a longtime critic of Entergy Nuclear, the owner of Vermont Yankee. He aroused the crowd by reciting a long list of broken promises made by Entergy since the company bought the nuclear plant. In April failed to make it lawfully required payment of $625,000 to Vermont’s Clean Energy Development Fund, which subsidizes renewable energy projects.
The Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund has never been fully funded
To the $1 billion-plus it is expected to cost to mothball the plant eventually. While the fund has fluctuated in value near the $400 million mark, Entergy has been chronically behind in its payments and the NRC has accepted the company’s promise of a “guarantee” in lieu of cash. When the Vermont Legislature passed a bill in 2008 that would have required Entergy to provide something like full funding, then-Governor James Douglas vetoed it.
Since June 18, Vermont Yankee has been operating at less than half power because of equipment failure about which reliable information was scant. In Washington, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neal Sheen said the failure was a large industrial motor that was part of Vermont Yankee when it was built in 1972.
This was not confirmed by spokesman Rob Williams for Entergy Nuclear, the Louisiana-based company that owns Vermont Yankee. He refused to say whether the motor was part of the original construction, adding, “We’re not going to get into that level of detail.” He did say that the motor was about half the size of a small bus.
The motor is one of a pair for the recirculation system at the nuclear plant, with one working and the other serving as backup. Now one has been moved off site for repair and the plant is running with the second unit, which suffered as-yet unexplained electrical malfunctions last September. With only one unit, Vermont Yankee is required to run at a reduced power level, but officials say the coolant pumps are not safety equipment.
Vermont Yankee has been leaking radioactive Tritium for at least the past two years, as a result of such aging equipment factors as badly corroded pipes and plugged drains. Tritium levels on site were measured as much as 45 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe in drinking water, although these levels have continued to decline.
According to the Vermont Dept. of Health, measurements taken in late April show Tritium in the Connecticut River at only one twentieth the concentration the EPA considers safe. The Health Dept. said its measurements indicate that the plume of underground water contaminated with tritium continues to move toward the river.
With waste storage space almost used up at Vermont Yankee, long-term operation of the plant is more problematical, unless Entergy persuades the state of Vermont to approve expanded storage. This possibility suffered a setback on June 8, when the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled against the NRC and sent the agency back to re-draw waste storage rules and “properly examine future dangers and key consequences.”
While both sides continue to await court action on their appeals of a federal court decision in January that threatens to strip Vermont of any authority over Vermont Yankee, protesters look forward to July 1, when, they say, “We plan to WOW Entergy with a special ‘gift’” and declare independence from Entergy.