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Renewing The Nuclear Past (Part 2)

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Cooling units at the Vermont Yankee power station. Radioactive tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) has leaked into the ground near the center of the plant.
Shawn Allee
Cooling units at the Vermont Yankee power station. Radioactive tritium (an isotope of hydrogen) has leaked into the ground near the center of the plant.

From The Environment Report

Producer: Shawn Allee


Power companies hope to extend the working life of old nuclear reactors because it's cheaper to run them than it is to build new reactors. But old reactors require federal approval to renew their licenses. For the past decade, power companies have been on a winning streak. They’d gotten reactor licenses renewed every time they asked. Shawn Allee reports one of the industry’s most recent bets went wrong:

Vermont's only nuclear reactor, Vermont Yankee, is likely to shut down in 2012. The story of how that happened is unique in the nuclear biz. Vermont Yankee's license was set to expire in 2012 but eight years ago, a company called Entergy bought it anyway. Entergy gambled the federal government would renew that license so Vermont Yankee could run another twenty years.

It seemed a safe bet, since the federal government never rejected a renewal application. But Entergy also asked to expand Vermont Yankee, to produce more power. That’s when Vermont’s state legislature stepped in. The legislature said, if you want to expand, we want some say in whether you operate past 2012, regardless of what the federal government says. No other state legislature has given itself this kind of authority. This was an opening for anti-nuclear activists.

Video was taken of a protest back in January. Activists took it during their week long winter-time March to Vermont's statehouse. The protesters stopped for potlucks, speeches, and church songs.

Protesters say they felt they were winning some support, but then they got an unexpected boost. Here’s protester Bob Bady:

"We got a call that there was a migrating plume of tritium under the plant and it was going to hit the press the next day."

Bady says tritium is a kind of hydrogen that makes water radioactive. In other words, Vermont Yankee was leaking radioactive water. Protesters asked themselves, didn't Entergy say these kinds of underground leaks couldn’t happen?

"The plant owner, Entergy, has incredibly low credibility particularly because they went before the legislature and vehemently denied there were even pipes underground, so that created a problem for them."

The details are fuzzy, at least according to Entergy. Here’s PR-guy Rob Williams.

"Clearly there was some kind of a miscommunication and then, uh, once we have a handle on it, we want to set the record straight."

Entergy says its own investigation found employees did not lie about piping that could cause tritium leaks. Vermont’s Attorney General is still determining that.

Regardless, some state senators said they felt they were lied to. Or Entergy did not know the plant could leak tritium. Either would be bad, so the state senate voted to shut the plant. And that's all Vermont law requires, so now Vermont Yankee's slated to close in 2012.

But what happened with the tritium leaks? PR-guy Rob Williams gives me a tour of Vermont Yankee. From Entergy’s point of view, the system worked. It detected tritium in underground water.

"Right. Now, this is three wells we installed to specifically look for tritium. It gives you a good early warning that you’ve got a leak back in the piping."

State health officials say tritium probably leaked near the center of the plant. The state hasn’t found contaminated wells or other drinking water supplies. Tritium is likely to move into the nearby Connecticut River, where it'll be diluted.

As for the federal government, it’s unfazed. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says Vermont Yankee leaked tritium before - several times. At least 26 other reactors leaked tritium, too, but the NRC says the public's safe. In fact, the NRC has approved applications for license renewal at plants that had leaks just like Vermont Yankee's. The NRC is still reviewing that plant's license renewal application...regardless of what the State of Vermont has to say about it.

For the Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Tomorrow, Shawn Allee looks at tritium leaks at one power plant that is across the river from a desalinization drinking water plant.


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