The Dangers of Nuclear Energy and the Need to Close Vermont Yankee

With nuclear energy, uranium atoms split inside a reactor, and radiation heats water to its boiling point creating steam to spin a giant turbine. It all seems like ingenious, efficient, and clean energy production. So where’s the mess?

Now consider plutonium, a horribly carcinogenic and highly fissionable substance, radioactive for more than half a million years. If exposed to air, it will ignite. Like little pieces of confetti, very fine plutonium particles will disperse after ignition. A single particle — like talc, to give you some perspective — can give you lung cancer. In the words of Helen Caldicott, M.D.: "Hypothetically, if you could take one pound of plutonium and could put a speck of it in the lungs of every human being, you would kill every man, woman, and child on earth" — not immediately, but over time "from lung cancer," Caldicott explains.

In one year, each nuclear reactor produces at least four hundred pounds of plutonium. According to bio-physicist John Gofman, who worked with plutonium on the Manhattan Project, if only 0.01 percent of stockpiled plutonium were to leak it would add at least an "extra twenty-five million cases of cancer in the American population" over the next fifty years. Gofman has since left the industry.

So where exactly is the mess? In the case of nuclear energy in Vermont the mess is in Windham County, in the town of Vernon, sitting along the riverbank.

It is true the waste is "contained" at the moment, but one crucial mishap, such as a meltdown, and the radioactive waste will replace everything that makes Vermont the state that it is. There is no such thing as a safe-level meltdown, and as long as there is a nuclear reactor in Vermont, the threat of meltdown exists. Moreover, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) has revealed that cancer death rates in Windham County are five percent above the national average.

Vermont’s per capita energy use is one of the lowest in the nation. However, according to the Council on the Future of Vermont, "the rate of energy consumption is faster in Vermont than in the United States as a whole." Total energy consumption has actually increased by eleven percent over the last ten years. Between 1990 and 2004 the total energy demand grew by twenty-five percent. Yet according to the same report, per capita electrical consumption has actually decreased in the last decade, regardless of an increase in number of customers. In other words, the increase in energy consumption does not pertain to electrical energy, so we can do without Yankee and start working toward reducing these other levels of energy consumption that are rooted in burning gas, oil, biomass, etc.

Here are some interesting facts related to the argument that energy rates will increase without Vermont Yankee: market rates in 2009 have been lower than the current contract rate from Yankee; DPS (the Department of Public Service) research purports to show that sufficient efficiency measures can nearly replace the power Yankee currently provides the state; Yankee has yet to settle on a purchase-power contract as regards reneging their license after 2012 and, their latest offer, filed with the Vermont Public Service Board, starts at 6.1 cents per kilowatt hour — a 52.5 percent increase from current rates, current rates that are already higher than the market rates of ’09. What’s more, Washington Electric, despite having some of the highest rates in the state, has some of the lowest bills in the state.

In addition, Yankee’s plant is one of the oldest in the world: its infrastructure is precariously decrepit and in need of urgent repair. The plant’s $100 million condenser needs to be replaced immediately and, according to Arnie Gunderson, speaking at Richmond’s Free Public Library in VT back in November of ’09, Yankee’s turbine-pull rotates in a fashion that when it malfunctions, shrapnel is shot back toward the reactor containment box. This too needs to be replaced.

Or why don’t we just replace Yankee with renewables? That seems to be the smartest, safest, and most cost-effective decision according to provided facts and data. We could assemble 3-400 megawatt wind-generated farms — an endeavor that would only take up five percent of Vermont’s ridges.

Aside from economic and other costs, one might guess that mishaps at nuclear facilities are far and few between. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In 2006 alone, ten percent of all U.S. nuclear facilities had an "incident." We have all heard the horror stories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, but not nearly as many people have heard of the spill that happened in Erwin, Tennessee in March of 2006, or the incident in which thousands of gallons of radioactive coolant spilled in Nebraska back in 1992.

Even VT Yankee has had radiation leaks time and again. There has been more than one leak at Yankee because of its aging, wooden infrastructure. In fact, in just the initial two years of operating, the plant had to be shut down seventeen times — radioactive gases exceeding legal limits were pouring out. In July of 1976, 86,000 gallons of radioactive tritium spilled into the Connecticut River. In 1980 a thousand gallons of radioactive water spilled on the plant floor. Incidents like these rack up to well over a dozen. At the beginning of 2009, two pipes leaking radioactive water and steam were reported. And then there was a leak in April, and another in the condenser was discovered in June. In 2002, the USNRC (the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission) reported that 47 percent of facility employees are afraid to report safety issues to management.

On July 25th of 2007, Scientific American disclosed that in 2006 there were a total of ten nuclear incidents in the U.S. that merited "significant spread of contamination/over exposure of a worker" and "incidents with significant failure in safety provisions." Ten may seem like a small number, but when there are only 103 operating reactors at 64 sites in 31 states, suddenly, the chances that Vermont will suffer another incident is one out of three.

Lobbyists and those who have a financial stake in Yankee will argue against all of this. At the end of the day, the elite will do all they can do to maintain their positions of power. But we as citizens also have the power to deprive them of the ability to steal from us i.e., their slapping us with a multi-billion dollar bill of radioactive waste cleanup costs, and we also have the power to deprive them of the ability to destroy the state’s landbase i.e., the fissure of uranium atoms that end up emitting deadly levels of radiation in order to heat water to spin a turbine alongside a river within an old, doddering reactor that has a history of functional mishaps.

Vermont faces a crucial decision. Renew Yankee’s license in 2012 or don’t. The Department of Public Service polls show that the state’s majority (63 percent) wants Yankee gone, but the final decision rests with our legislators.

Furthermore, despite the NEI’s (Nuclear Energy Institute) claim that nuclear energy is safe and "green" with zero emissions, analysis proves otherwise. In fact, the nuclear industry is a large contributor to the greenhouse gas aggregate and global warming. The mining of uranium is especially intensive in emitting C02, alongside having a heavy reliance on diesel fuel to operate the machinery.

If one takes into account the mining of uranium, plant construction and fuel enrichment combined for an operating facility, the equivalent of 34-60 grams of C02 are emitted per kilowatt of energy (from each operational facility), as claimed by the German Oko Institute in the paper Comparing Greenhouse-Gas Emissions and Abatement Costs of Nuclear and Alternative Energy Options from a Life-Cycle Perspective, presented at the CNIC Conference on Nuclear Energy and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions in Tokyo, November of 1997.

In 2007 the U.S.’s total generation of energy from nuclear fission was 806.5 billion kWh (kilowatt hours). That equals anywhere from 27,421 billion to 48,390 billion grams of C02 released into the atmosphere in that year alone. Global emissions are much starker, ranging anywhere from 90,429.8 billion to 159,582 billion grams of C02 released into the atmosphere. One billion grams is equal to a thousand metric tons. These numbers will only climb drastically with demand.

There are also concerns surrounding spent fuel cooling pools. According to information attained from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) and UCSUSA (Union of Concerned Scientists), these 45-feet deep, 100,000 gallon lead and/or steel-lined concrete pools are necessary for retaining the high-level radioactive spent fuel rods that generate intense heat. Powered by diesel generators, the pools are continually cooled while pumps circulate water from spent fuel pools to heat exchangers back to the spent fuel pools. There is also the monitoring of the air and water in order to prevent radiolysis (the dissociation of molecules) so that hydrogen gas will not escape, threatening explosion. Without cooling, the pool water will heat up and boil. If that water boils away, the spent fuel assemblies will overheat, melt, or catch fire. You’ll have a meltdown.

In addition, uranium mining — employed for Yankee’s fuel rods — is culpable for radiological contamination of the environment and for impacting groundwater systems. It requires approximately a ton of ore to extract two pounds of uranium. The leftover debris is known as uranium tailings. These tailings are comprised of alpha-emitting substances such as thorium-230 (half-life of 80,000 years), radium-226, radon-222, lead-210, polonium-210, etc.

The above-mentioned radium-226 in uranium tailings is a highly lethal "bone-seeking" alpha-emitting carcinogen with a half-life of 1,600 years. This element is "blown in the wind, washed by the rain, and leached into waterways" from the tailings. It concentrates by factors of thousands in aquatic plants and by the hundreds in land-based plants.

Considering the genocidal impact US history has had on the North American indigenous, uranium mining will only worsen this legacy. After decades of mining on American Indian territory, many lives have been ruined. Uranium tailings, fifty to sixty feet high speck the abandoned mining sites situated on reservation lands releasing radon, actinides (responsible for long-term radioactivity), and other debris into the topsoil and groundwater of the surrounding regions. The debris that sullies the climes of Indian country is replete with radioactive substances often resulting in cancers and other degenerative diseases.

Dr. Gordon Edwards, writing for Perception magazine in 1992, explained that leftover uranium tailings contain about 85 percent of the original radioactivity found in the ore. They emit at least 10,000 times the amount of radon gas as the undisturbed ore. Radon gas can travel 1,000 miles in a day and can deposit on vegetation, soil, and water.

The NRC estimates radon emissions from uranium tailings in the Southwestern U.S. will result in over 3,000 cancer deaths per century over the entire North American continent. Other researchers say this assertion is underestimated by at least a factor of ten.

By the 1950s cases of lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, tuberculosis, birth defects, kidney damage, and more, began to show up in populations near uranium mining sites. By 1978, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) had recorded 140 million tons of "on site tailings piles at twenty-two abandoned and sixteen operational mills." There are more than 1,100 abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation alone. Continued production results in the creation of six to ten tons of tailings annually, alongside small cell carcinoma for Navajo miners.

Yucca Mountain, situated on Western Shoshone Nation land, is a proposed nuclear waste repository site. Left with thousands of tons of nuclear waste per annum, U.S. nuclear power facilities are desperately seeking a place to store their ever-increasing stockpiles of deadly wastes. America’s best idea thus far is to stuff it all inside a mountain, on land that does not belong to the U.S. Backed by the Ruby Valley Treaty and the Nevada Enabling Act, Yucca Mountain and its surrounding region are not U.S. territory, therefore not for federal use.

If Vermont Yankee is re-licensed we’ll have another twenty years of anxiety over whether or not it is safe to have an industrial operation that is splitting atoms to turn a turbine in our state. Vermont’s history and political makeup is a unique blend of conservative philosophy and leftist-progressivism that often respects the unity between person and place. Let’s continue that tradition and put ecology before economy. Renewable energy is the answer. We just need to adjust our lives so that the availability of energy determines our consumption instead of the other way around.

Frank Joseph Smecker is a student, social-worker, and writer from Richmond, VT.