Obama's Nuclear Vision Suffers Setback as Vermont Plant Faces Shutdown

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Obama's Nuclear Vision Suffers Setback as Vermont Plant Faces Shutdown

Vermont would be the first state to close a nuclear reactor after 38-year-old Yankee's history of leaking cancer-causing tritium

by
Suzanne Goldenberg

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the Connecticut river, Vermont. (Photograph: Michael Springer/Getty Images)

Barack Obama's new dream of a nuclear renaissance faces a major
reality check today as the state of Vermont is expected to shut
down an ageing nuclear reactor with a history of leaks.

It would be the first time a state has moved to shut down such a reactor, and follows Obama's announcement last week of $8.3bn (£5.4bn) in loan guarantees for the construction of two new reactors
in Georgia. White House officials said the money would help spur a
burst of new construction - the first since the Three Mile Island
meltdown.

The Vermont Yankee, one of America's oldest reactors,
has had several leaks of radioactive tritium dating back to 2005, the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Monday.

The state senate is
set to deny a request to extend its 40-year life span by an additional
20 years condemning the plant to close in 2012, said Peter Shumlin, the
highest ranking member of the Vermont senate.

"It is not in
Vermont's best interest to run this plant beyond its scheduled closing
date in 2012. It is falling apart," said Shumlin. The 30-member senate,
which is controlled by Democrats, is due to vote Wednesday morning.

The
battle over the so-called Vermont Yankee reactor has attracted an
increasingly national audience amid growing disaffection among liberals
and environmentalists with Obama's support for the nuclear industry.

Shumlin
and other opponents of the plant argue that America has yet to plan for
the safe retirement of its existing 104 reactors, which are beginning
to approach the end of their original life spans. Some 27 of those
reactors have had leaks of tritium, according to the nuclear regulatory
commission.

"The debate here isn't whether or not we build new nuclear power
plants. The question for America is how can we be so irresponsible and
so negligent in expecting our old tired plants to run past their
scheduled closing dates," Shumlin said.

The 38-year-old Vermont Yankee
plant, which is owned by the New Orleans based Entergy Corp, is among
the first of that older generation of reactors, and over the last few
years has sustained a series of accidents and leaks.

A cooling
tower collapsed in 2007 and again in 2008. In 2009, the plant had three
separate leaks of radioactive tritium, which has been linked to cancer.
An investigation later established that the plant's owners had lied
about the extent of contamination to the local water supply, claiming
the facility did not have underground pipes that could carry tritium
when it did.

In a statement to the Associated Press, the company
said it was committed to safe operations. "Our focus has always been
safely, securely and reliably operating our power plants. We take any
concerns about the safe operation of our facilities very seriously and
therefore finding the source of tritium in Vermont and correcting it is
a top priority for our company," Entergy spokesman Mike Burns said in
an email.

Arnie Gundersen, a former industry engineer turned
nuclear watchdog, said such leaks were indicators that the Vermont
Yankee was nearing the end of its life span. "It seems like the plants
that came on line before the Three Mile Island accident in the 1970s
are predominantly the ones that are spring the leaks," he said. "In the
case of the Vermont Yankee the problems of an ageing reactor were
compounded by the pressures of trying to generate a 20% increase in
power. Nobody else has ever tried for a power increase of 20%."

Vermont has a reputation for environmental awareness - and for independence. The state has sent a socialist to the US Senate. However, the plant is a major source of employment, with jobs for about 600.

But
recent revelations about the leaks have consolidated public opinion in
the state against the reactor. Last week, two conservation groups
called for a criminal investigation into nuclear plant officials for
misleading state officials when they testified under oath that the
plant did not have the kind of underground pipes that carry tritium.

On Sunday, the Burlington Free Press, the largest paper in the state, said it was time for the plant to go.

"Events
such as a radioactive leak unresolved more than six weeks after it was
first revealed to the public and misinformation provided by Entergy
officials under oath raise serious questions about whether Vermont
Yankee serves Vermont's long-term interests," the editorial said.

Elsewhere,
activists are hoping that the showdown over the Vermont Yankee will
help mobilise protests against other reactors when their licences come
up for review. Unlike in Vermont, however, most states require only
that the federal government's nuclear regulatory commission sign off on
extending the life of reactors.

But James Moore of the
Vermont Public Interest Research Group said he detected signs of a
backlash against both the ageing reactors and Obama's plans for the
birth of a third generation of nuclear plants. "A lot of folks on the
left and right are waking up to the reality that it is a bad idea to
give hard earned tax dollars to a new generation of reactors when we
can't manage the old reactors," he said.

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