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Tim Blagg

Blagg: A dim future

In the wake of the announcement that Entergy will be closing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant over the next year or so, I sat back and mused on the missed opportunities that decision represents.

I’ve been studying — and occasionally covering — nuclear power since the 1970s, so I’ve had a ringside seat for the dramatic history of this technology.

First, a bit of history. Back in the Eisenhower administration, the government determined that this terrible genie they’d let out of the bottle during World War II needed to be tamed and turned to peaceful purposes.

After all, nuclear fission represented the first new energy source humankind had discovered since the discovery of the usefulness of coal and oil as a heat source in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Surely it could be harnessed as a substitute for these finite resources.

So the Atomic Energy Commission was ordered to find ways to use fission as a power source. Some of the ideas — a nuclear-powered merchant vessel, for example — turned out to be pretty silly. But, spurred by the successes of the Navy in producing compact, dependable reactors for use in submarines and aircraft carriers, the AEC rounded up the nation’s utilities and offered to help them build power plants.

One of the promises — not kept to this day — was to accept and store the high-level radioactive waste of spent fuel.

So the first generation of power plants — including Yankee Atomic’s Rowe plant — was built and went on line. The second generation incorporated lessons learned from the first.

Control room standards were applied, as well as considerably increased safety requirements. Extensive studies were done of “worst case” accident scenarios, and new plants had to install a wide range of backup equipment.

But Three-Mile Island demonstrated that control room alarms were still not easy to understand, and that a slow, undetected leak could be worse than a full-scale piping failure.

After TMI, the new Nuclear Regulatory Commission, divorced from its previous cheerleader role, made the regulations even stricter — and the stage was set for the third generation of power plants.

But that never happened, at least in this country.

A lack of political will, a ground-swell of Luddite alarmism and the increasing costs of meeting constantly changing NRC regulations drove many of the pioneering utilities out of the business. Yankee Atomic, probably the best nuclear operator in the world, closed its Rowe plant — which was in my opinion the safest plant on the globe.

To my alarm, that also meant wholesale sell-offs of nuke plants to new, totally inadequate operators like Entergy ... the equivalent of turning over a 450-horsepower Maserati to a driver with a learner’s permit ... it was no surprise to see problem after problem up in Vernon.

What should have happened?

The next group of reactors would have been based on new, fail-safe designs. Their control rooms would have had identical layouts, so that operators could easily move from plant to plant. Thirty years of experience had illustrated many engineering pitfalls and shown the way to smaller, more efficient reactors that were many times safer than their predecessors — and less reliant on the expertise of their control room crews.

I have long been in favor of using the FAA’s model of government trained and employed operators, rather than relying on each utility to supply and train their own.

And I also believe that certain standards of efficiency and financing be applied to prospective plant owners, rather than relying on the free market.

The bottom line is that nuclear power — properly developed and administered for maximum safety — should be a big part of this country’s energy mix for the future. We simply cannot afford to keep burning non-renewable fossil fuels and pouring more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, today’s climate of fear and political gridlock makes that future very unlikely.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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