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People and Politicians Living Downwind of Yankee Object to "Radiation Without Representation" 

Local Matters

Bernie Sanders

Published February 17, 2010 at 8:28 a.m.


Residents of New Hampshire and Massachusetts have no official say in what happens to Vermont Yankee. But that isn’t stopping them from expressing their opinions on the plant’s relicensure request now before Vermont and federal regulators.

Last month, four Massachusetts lawmakers who represent people living within 10 miles of the Vernon reactor urged their Vermont counterparts to reject VY’s proposal.

“We recognize that under current law the residents and elected officials of Massachusetts have no official ‘voice’ in the much-debated matter of whether to allow Entergy to continue operating Vermont Yankee for an additional 20 years,” noted Reps. Christopher Donelan (D-Orange), Denis Guyer (D-Dalton) and Stephen Kulik (D-Worthington), along with Massachusetts Senate President Pro Tem Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst).

A bill in Congress, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), would change that. His legislation would grant the governor of a neighboring state within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant the right to demand a full, independent safety assessment of a facility prior to its relicensure.

Govs. John Lynch of New Hampshire and Deval Patrick of Massachusetts aren’t waiting for Bernie’s legislation. In separate letters last week to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both Democrats urged the feds to intensify their probe into VY’s tritium leak and to slow down their review of VY’s relicensure application.

By contrast, Gov. Jim Douglas’ administration is largely deferring to the NRC’s on-site safety review. But it is independently monitoring groundwater and drinking- water wells.

Vermont health officials believe tritium has found its way into the Connecticut River, but not at high enough levels to warrant a public health concern.

While Vermonters receive the perceived benefits of low-cost power and tax revenues from the plant’s operations and workforce, residents who live downwind and downstream seem to feel they are simply stuck with the risks.

Hattie Nestel, of Athol, Mass., a member of the Citizen Action Network, has been arrested multiple times for protesting at Vermont Yankee. She and several other veteran female protestors traveled to Burlington just weeks before the tritium leak was uncovered to urge Vermont activists to help them share their concerns.

“We already have radiation in our rivers and our land because of Vermont Yankee, and yet we don’t have a say in how to close it down,” said Nestel. “It’s radiation without representation.”

Like their Vermont neighbors, Massachusetts and New Hampshire residents who live within 10 miles of the Vernon reactor and are part of the “emergency preparedness zone” are keenly aware of VY’s presence. They have emergency sirens in their communities and potassium iodide pills in their medicine cabinets. The pills protect the thyroid gland from the harmful effects of radioactive iodine released during a nuclear accident.

About two-thirds of VY’s 650 workers live in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. But that didn’t stop 12 of 14 Massachusetts communities from approving Town Meeting Day resolutions last year to shut down VY in 2012.

“Many people in this area have little confidence in Entergy’s assurances that a serious radiological accident will never happen,” the Massachusetts lawmakers wrote. “If such an accident were to happen, it could have a devastating effect on the families, property and environment of dozens of nearby communities, especially those that are in the downwind pathway.”

The Vermont Yankee Issue

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.

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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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