Southbound travelers from Brattleboro on Route 142 have plenty to see. Ice fishermen’s shacks dot the Connecticut River, which flows parallel to the road. Fat logs sit in neat stacks waiting to be milled at the lumber companies that abut the river. Giant transmission towers connected by wires the size of fire hoses loom overhead.
With all that visual stimulation, it’s easy to blow by the town of Vernon and not even know it. Apart from a small, green-and-white sign marking the boundary with its larger cosmopolitan neighbor, nothing indicates where Vernon begins and Brattleboro ends. There are no cafés or restaurants, no shops and no town center. The only signs of life on the main thoroughfare are an elder-care facility and a gas station-cum-convenience store at the junction with Governor Hunt Road. In this way, Vernon is not so different from many sleepy towns in Vermont.
But one thing sets Vernon apart. As home to Vermont’s only nuclear power plant, the town has had to deal with the ramifications of life in the shadow of Vermont Yankee since the facility opened in 1972. For residents, this means participating in disaster drills, keeping special tone-alert radios in their homes and knowing where their state-issued potassium iodide pills are at all times.
It also means dealing with the political and emotional fallout of such a contentious power source. Residents lament the relentless raging grannies, paid picketers from out of state, knee-jerk lawmakers who want to see the facility shuttered, and a general feeling that their voices are not being heard. As the statewide debate rages about whether to decommission Vermont Yankee or extend its contract, the town of Vernon hangs in the balance.
Vernon is decidedly and unapologetically a company town. Its recent history has been intertwined with Vermont Yankee, and its future depends on what politicians in Montpelier decide to do about the nuclear plant, which is one of 13 operated by Louisiana-based Entergy.
Many of Vernon’s 2000 residents work at Vermont Yankee, which employs 650 people, and townspeople say everyone has friends employed by the company. The chair of the Vernon Selectboard, Michael Ball, has worked as an engineer at the facility for years and serves as a conduit of information for the town. There is a sense among residents that Vermont Yankee is an essential part of the town, as important as the emergency services or the elementary school. Town clerk Sandra Harris calls the nuclear plant’s overseers “excellent neighbors.” “They’ve been like that from the beginning,” she says.
To understand Vernon is to understand Vermont Yankee and vice versa. The plant is a formidable facility made up of drab, windowless buildings that sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, across the street from the elementary school and just down the road from the town hall and library.
As they approach the plant, visitors are greeted with signs declaring that all entering vehicles are subject to search, and the plant’s security team is authorized to use “deadly force” in the event of a safety breach. About a dozen towers surround the perimeter, occupied by guards who peer with binoculars at people on the ground. During a recent tour, Vermont Yankee spokesperson Rob Williams asked that no photos be taken of the guard towers for security reasons.
At ground level, security personnel equipped with 9-millimeter handguns and tactical assault rifles mill about. Three layers of cyclone fencing topped with barbed wire prevent unauthorized entry. Between them, spindles of concertina wire sit on the ground just in front of security spikes embedded in concrete. Many of the security features were added to Vermont Yankee after 9/11.
To enter the facility, visitors must submit to a background check in advance. At the plant, they must be screened again. Before walking into the “radiologically controlled area” that houses the nuclear reactor, the cooling towers and the dry cask storage where the nuclear waste is held, visitors pass through an Ion Track scanner — one of the puffer machines used to detect explosives. Once they have cleared that, they must scan a swipe card and place their hands on a hand-key recognition system that opens the turnstile into the secure area. A sign by the door proclaims that Vermont Yankee employees have worked for 12 days without an accident.
The grounds of the plant are unremarkable, except for the amount of excavation going on. Because of the recent detection in the ground near the plant of a plume of tritium — a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen and a byproduct of the condensing process (see sidebar) — Vermont Yankee crews have been digging wells to determine the source of the leak.
Crews began digging wells in the area where the tritium was first detected and are working their way back toward the advanced off-gas building, where the leak is most likely located. Spokesperson Williams says that as the crews search for the tritium leak, they are also looking for cobalt-60 and other radioactive waste products that could have seeped from the underground drain lines with the tritium.
Visitors must pass through a portal that scans the amount of radiation they have on their body. All employees who work in the facility have to wear a personal dosimeter — a device the size of a thumb drive that collects radiation data. Periodically, those dosimeters are checked to make sure the radiation is within an acceptable level. Williams says no one has ever been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation at Vermont Yankee.
Since the plant opened 38 years ago, the people of Vernon have grown to appreciate its presence. Lifelong resident Susan Miller said she feels lucky to have Vermont Yankee in her town. That’s not only because people think the company has done due diligence when it comes to safety and transparency. It’s also because, like most industries that have a large presence in a community, Entergy gets involved. The company’s reps take part in town activities and sponsor events.
In a way, Vermont Yankee is the benevolent laird of Vernon, doling out favors in exchange for company buy-in. For years, the company has sponsored the town’s July Fourth fireworks display, and recently Entergy paid for the construction of a new emergency management building in Vernon. The company funded last weekend’s 86th Annual Harris Hill Ski Jump competition, one of the most popular sporting events in the region.
When the facility was first proposed, Vernon was a picturesque farming community nestled alongside the Connecticut River and bounded by New Hampshire to the east and Massachusetts to the south. Most community members were in favor of the plant, says Miller. As the economics of farming made it increasingly difficult to earn a living in agriculture, Vernon welcomed the jobs Vermont Yankee promised. The residents believed in the company. “People were very supportive of it when it was built because [the company was] open with us,” Miller recalls. “When we had a question, it was answered.” People believed the benefits, including a slew of new jobs and a spike in commercial property tax revenue, far outweighed any potential risk.
For the most part, Vernon residents still see Vermont Yankee as a safe facility that takes its responsibilities as a neighbor seriously. What people in the town seem most concerned about is the issue of radioactive waste storage, not necessarily the safety of the plant. Miller says the townspeople don’t worry much, because they’ve had ample training on what to do in the event of a nuclear disaster. Over the years, Entergy has conducted a number of mock evacuations of schools, nursing homes and daycare centers in the region.
Residents say the training gives them confidence. They seem to have trust in Entergy management, too, even in the face of the most recent tritium issue. Because of Entergy’s track record with the town, residents seem to be in a holding pattern, giving the company the benefit of the doubt. “I’m just waiting to see where the truth settles,” says Vernon resident Trish Hain.
To keep residents informed of exactly what’s going on at the plant, management has been sending daily updates to town librarian Kris Berberian, who has been compiling them in a binder. Selectboard Chair Ball also keeps town officials in the loop on the continuing tritium problem.
That regular flow of information eases Berberian’s mind, to a degree. “We would hope we’re getting the full picture,” she says. “But it’s tough to decide whether you’re getting it all or not.”
Still, people in Vernon don’t seem to be worried about their immediate safety, even in light of the tritium leak. “It’s not like it’s going to blow up like people think it will,” Miller says. “They’re so picky over there that it makes the news if they have a bolt that fell off. They have backups to their backups.”
Larry Underwood, who was born in Vernon and still owns property there, says he understands that any nuclear facility of Yankee’s size poses some threat, but he believes in the integrity of the company. “The people working there are our neighbors,” says Underwood, who now lives in neighboring Gill, Mass. “I find it hard to believe that they would do anything to hurt their children or their neighbors.”
“When people we know [who work at Vermont Yankee] start moving their families out of town, that’s a pretty good indication that something’s wrong,” town clerk Harris says.
The tritium leak has done little to help Vermont Yankee’s case in the Statehouse and outside Vernon. But despite the plant’s problems of late, residents aren’t willing to turn their backs on it. They have faith that the company — their friends and family — will be able to figure out the problem, fix it and encourage the legislature to extend Entergy’s contract. “Everyone’s waiting now to see what happens,” Harris says. “We have some pretty awesome people working on it.”
If the issues aren’t resolved, offers Hain, Vernon will suffer. “It would be devastating for the town if they closed,” she says.
Nuclear energy begins with uranium, a silvery-white radioactive metal mined in Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan, among other countries. The uranium is made into pellets the size of pencil-top erasers and enclosed in 12-foot-long zirconium tubes. Those tubes are surrounded in the reactor core by water. Vermont Yankee has 368 fuel assemblies, each holding about 100 tubes.
Uranium atoms must be split using neutrons to release their energy. Once inside the nucleus of the uranium atoms, the neutrons immediately split the atoms and release the energy that held them together. The atoms fly apart inside the uranium pellets at 6000 miles per second. When they randomly collide with other molecules, heat energy is created.
That energy heats the pellet, which in turn heats the tube and then the water. The water is boiled in the reactor and turned into steam. The steam is used to spin a turbine that powers a generator and produces electricity.
After the steam has spun the turbine, it goes into a condenser and is recycled back into the plant, creating a closed-loop system. One of the gases that can’t be condensed is tritium. Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen and a byproduct of the nuclear fission process in a reactor. It can be found in water that is exposed to a nuclear reaction.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee poses no immediate threat to public health; while the tritium plume is likely to have reached the Connecticut River, the substance has not been found in drinking water. Still, the department notes that “this event is of high concern because it signals an unscheduled and unintended release or leak of radioactive materials.”
Another day, another tritium-leak story. Vermont Yankee has dominated the news in recent months, owing to a perfect storm of factors: physical problems at the aging plant; a relicensing deadline; and the Vermont legislature’s unique opportunity to vote on the future of the state’s only nuclear facility.
Why should you care? Because every nuke plant, handled improperly, is a potential Chernobyl. Handled properly, nuke plants are touted as low-cost, low-carbon sources of energy.
Vermont Yankee’s affordable power prices, coupled with political inertia, have slowed the development of local renewable power sources. The economic recession has eroded Yankee’s decommissioning fund — the money VY’s parent company, Louisiana-based Entergy, is required to set aside to pay for the plant’s eventual dismantling. As if that weren’t enough to worry about, Entergy wants to create a spin-off company that would end up owning Yankee. Critics allege it would allow the nuke facility to declare bankruptcy, leaving Vermonters with the bill to clean up VY.
This week’s Vermont Yankee package aims to bring readers up to speed on a complicated issue that can’t be reduced to “Nuclear Energy for Dummies” — although Lauren Ober does explain the basic science in her story about Yankee’s hometown of Vernon. Juxtaposed profiles of federal whistleblower Arnie Gundersen and his arch nemesis, public service commissioner David O’Brien, reveal a tense behind-the-scenes conflict that has shaped state policy on Vermont Yankee for years.
In an expanded “Local Matters,” Shay Totten investigates the legal ramifications of shutting down Yankee and asks experts to predict what will power a post-nuke Vermont. Ken Picard examines the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s dual role of regulator and industry promoter. Andy Bromage looks at Entergy’s ongoing — and expensive — lobbying efforts.
Since nuclear contamination doesn’t recognize state borders, Vermont’s problem is spilling over into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Totten gives a voice to Yankee’s downstream neighbors. They’d like to have a say in this, too.