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Nuclear power: Too great a risk

March 11 marks the 2-year anni-versary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. What lessons have we learned? What are the risks from the extreme weather events we are seeing? How is climate change affecting the safety of nuclear reactors? Is the NRC, the entity entrusted with the safety of nuclear power plants, really doing its job?

Tim Blagg’s Nov. 19, 2012 column “Reducing Risks” mentioned the failed “o rings” that caused the Challenger disaster many years ago. An investigation determined there were problems with them on previous launches. Instead of stopping the program, NASA (who claim they made safety a top priority), assigned a group to investigate and kept scheduling trips to orbit. Blagg states that this numbing of our awareness of risk happens to us all every day.

He then writes that we are willing to risk our lives driving in our cars every day but fear living near nuclear power plants where the risk of being killed “is so low as to be nearly incalculable, but we aren’t willing to take THAT risk.”

Yet there is good reason we shouldn’t be willing to take that risk. While a nuclear disaster may be less likely to happen than a car crash, it would affect thousands of people instead of just a few.

The Safe and Green Campaign has compiled a partial list of over 70 accidents, incidences of human error, breakdowns and leaks reported at Vermont Yankee since 2004, most all documented in this paper, as well as Entergy lying about the existence of underground pipes later found to be leaking radioactive tritium. The NRC insists Vermont Yankee is safe and, like NASA, trivializes the problems at the plant and approves continued operation of this aging Mark 1 reactor; this ignores the potential for disaster to the surrounding area.

Nuclear engineer Arnie Gunderson spoke in Greenfield on Nov. 13, 2012, stating that Vermont Yankee is one of 23 GE Mark 1 reactors in the U.S. that are the same design as Fukushima Daiichi. He said that in 1972, the NRC stated we never should have licensed this reactor containment, and in 1985, they added there was about a 90 percent chance that in a severe accident this containment could fail, which is what happened at Fukushima.

While we are told earthquakes of the magnitude felt by Japan won’t happen here, a recent article in The Recorder stated that East Coast tremors can travel much farther and cause damage over larger areas than previously thought. A 5.8-magnitude earthquake occurred in Virginia in August 2011 that caused evacuations in buildings in communities in Connecticut and over $200 million in damage in the Northeast. It affected more people than any earthquake in U.S. history. Seismologists also acknowledge that earthquakes are increasing because of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the process of injecting water, sand and toxic chemicals deep into the earth to extract natural gas. While Fukushima was built to withstand an 8.0-magnitude earthquake, Vermont Yankee is a weaker design and was built to withstand a 6.0-magnitude.  The NRC is looking at the risk from earthquakes, but evaluating over a several year period, while earthquake activity is increasing now.

Gunderson has stated that a seismic event could cause a spent fuel pool fire if the water were to drain, and that the 23 Mark 1 reactors in the United States have even more nuclear fuel in them than Unit 4 at Fukushima Daiichi.  He feels we need to demand that the NRC take the fuel out of these fuel pools. Right now, industry pressure to save money is preventing those fuel pools from being emptied. According to Dr. Ira Helfand, who spoke at Greenfield Community College on Sept. 24, 2012, Vermont Yankee has 530 tons of stored nuclear waste, some of it in spent fuel containers five stories in the air, some in dry casks that are too close to the Connecticut River.

During Hurricane Sandy, four nuclear plants were affected; the pumps at the Oyster Creek Reactor came within 6 inches of flooding. Climatologists now say storms like Sandy are likely to replace the traditional hurricanes we have been used to and will cause far more damage over large areas. Increased drought is another factor that can threaten safety for vast amounts of water are needed for cooling.

If there is a major accident at Vermont Yankee for any reason, those of us in this area will likely be displaced, losing all we hold dear. We won’t be reimbursed for our losses, either. All 23 of these aging reactors need to be shut down now! We need to phase out the rest and not build any more. We ARE at risk and the risk is too great.

Please consider joining an “Unplug Nuclear Power” action on March 11, marking the anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, by using as little utility supplied electricity as possible on that day.

Dorothy McIver lives in Greenfield and is a member of Citizens for Emergency Preparedness.

In asserting that nuclear power is too great to risk, you are overlooking the fact that there are many different ways to design nuclear power systems and that some nuclear power systems could eliminate the valid objections associated with our current pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology. For example, there is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) which cannot melt down since the fuel is thorium tetrafluoride which is a liquid at reactor operating temperatures and the reactor generates less than 1% as much waste as our current PWRs. There is also the integral fast reactor (IFR) which would also be much better than our PWRs. You are also overlooking the fact that there have been no basic changes in the design of our nuclear reactors since they were made operational more than 30 years ago. Reactor research funds were cut off during the Clinton administration. Consider what cars would be like if the designs had been frozen in 1910; people would still be breaking their arms while cranking them. Instead of eschewing nuclear power technology, you should be pushing for more R & D to develop better nuclear technologies.

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