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As Goes Japan, So Goes Vermont Yankee? 

Published March 15, 2011 at 2:31 p.m.

As people remain tuned into the evolving story of a possible post-tsunami meltdown at multiple nuclear power plants in Japan, some are turning their attention toward Vermont's lone nuclear power plant.

It was just last week that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) gave Vermont Yankee a new, 20-year license to operate.VY's boiling-water reactor design is identical to those in Japan.

Could Vermont Yankee withstand an 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami?

Well, it's unlikely either event would occur in Vermont. The fault line that runs underneath Vermont Yankee isn't nearly as active. The last quake that shook Vermont Yankee was last June. It measured 5.0 on the Richter Scale. VY is designed to survive a 6.5 quake, according to plant officials.

A tsnunami is also unlikely — but a major flood or hurricane isn't. In 1938 a major hurricane struck New England. It was strong enough to topple power lines and block roads in and around Brattleboro, which is just a few miles from the Vernon reactor.

The event at Fukushima Daiichi is called a station blackout (SBO), which means no power onsite or coming from offsite. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the ability of reactors in the United States to sustain an SBO varies. Most reactors can last only four hours. Vermont Yankee, however, is designed to last eight hours on its batteries. So were the reactors at Fukushami Daiichi.

The national radio and TV program "Democracy Now" today featured interviews with Gov. Peter Shumlin and nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen, among others, who talked about the impact that the possible meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactors might have on the U.S. attitude toward nuclear power.

Shumlin has been a consistent critic of Vermont Yankee and a skeptic of fellow Democrat, Pres. Barack Obama's support for construction of new nuclear power plants as part of a so-called "Nuclear Renaissance."

Shumlin told "Democracy Now" that, despite last week's ruling by the NRC that Vermont Yankee deserves to run for another 20 years, the state's decision last year to shut down the plant as scheduled in 2012 would stand. Oddly enough, the reactor in Japan were built around the same time as Vermont Yankee. In fact, one of the failing reactors was slated to go offline later this month — for good.

Vermont's governor said his heart goes out to all the Japanese people who are suffering from the effects of these multiple disasters. But, when it comes to pushing for more nuclear power in the United States, Shumlin thinks the unfolding events in Japan present a lesson in caution.

"I think it asks all of us to reexamine our policy of irrational exuberance when it comes to extending the lives of aging nuclear plants that were designed to shut down after 40 years," said Shumlin.

Asked if he opposes Pres. Obama's effort to build new nuclear power plants, Shumlin said he spoke to the president about the topic just a few weeks ago during a meeting with the nation's governors.

"I said, mister president if you want to convince us that new nuclear has a future in America you have to help us deal with old nuclear in a rational way," said Shumlin, noting there is no federal repository for high-level nuclear waste as had been promised decades ago.

The long-term, onsite storage of nuclear waste is also raising concern in Japan. Damage to reactor spent fuel pools, and onsite dry cask storage, could trigger additional radioactive releases.

For now, the focus remains on how much radiation will be released into the environment and its impact on Japan and the world. Gundersen said if the Japanese reactors trigger multiple meltdowns, the resulting event would be like "Chernobyl on steroids."

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to try to allay fears that a similar event could happen in the United States at one of the country's 104 nuclear reactors.

Gundersen said people should take the NRC's lack of concern with a grain of salt. That's because 23 of those 104 reactors have the same containment system as the ones in Japan — they are Mark 1 design built by General Electric.

According to a report posted on CorpWatch, documents obtained by Public Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act found that GE-designed nuclear reactors around the world "have a design flaw that make it virtually certain (90 percent) that in the event of a meltdown, radiation would be released directly into the environment and into surrounding communities, leaving the public without any protection. The NRC acknowledges that the reactor containment structure in GE-built nuclear power plants does not work, but they licensed the reactors anyway."

"If you still trust the NRC you're the kind of person who's giving Bernie Madoff money while he's in prison," quipped Gundersen.

Entergy, meanwhile, downplayed the news of the Japanese catastrophe — noting that the nuclear power industry could learn some important lessons on improving safety as a result.

In a statement to the media, Entergy said it was "closely monitoring the situation in coordination with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and industry peers." The company, working through NEI, has offered support and assistance to the Japanese nuclear industry.

Entergy’s nuclear plants were designed and built to withstand the effects of natural disasters, including earthquakes and catastrophic flooding, the company said in a statement. "The NRC requires that safety-significant structures, systems and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically reported for each site and surrounding area."

""There will be lessons learned from this tragic event. Incorporating those lessons into operating experience is a hallmark of the global nuclear industry. It is worth noting that the natural environment surrounding the nuclear plants in Japan is very different from the environment surrounding Entergy’s nuclear plants," said Entergy in a release. "The company understands and appreciates that these forces, natural and man-made, require constant vigilance and preparation for the unexpected."

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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