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Waste not, want not

The case against Vermont Yankee may hinge on where to put the waste

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted January 26, 2007

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is returning to Brattleboro and will present an environmental impact assessment relating to Entergy Vermont Yankee’s re-licensing efforts. The 650-page preliminary document concluded that the nuclear power plant posed no adverse environmental impacts and that the conclusions should not restrict the company’s request to operate beyond 2012. Now citizens will have an opportunity to respond.

“In terms of this meeting, it’s really just to get public comments on the reports,” said Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman. “We hope that anyone who’s interested in commenting on the report would have had an opportunity to take a look at it. It’s been out for about a month now and we’re going to talk a little bit about where we are in the review process and how we compiled this report. But after that, we really want to open up to public comment. That’s really the reason for holding these meetings and we hope there’s a good level of participation.”

The NRC will hold public hearings at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro on Wednesday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, company officials are making their case — through a well-funded advertising and lobbying campaign — that nuclear power is “green” and will be a friend in the fight against global warming.

Opponents of Vermont Yankee, and nuclear power in general, scoff at the notion that nuclear power is “green.” Despite claims, they contend, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the mining and processing of nuclear fuel outweighs any carbon emissions it may thwart from other fuel sources.

And, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, noted while announcing his intention to introduce a bill that would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (identical to a bill introduced last year by retiring U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, I-VT), the waste conundrum outweighs any potential benefit.

And, waste may become a key issue in the relicensure hearing thanks to a Jan. 13 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court denied to hear an appeal filed by the owner of two nuclear power plants in California in response to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last year that said federal regulators had to consider the environmental impact of a terrorist attack on both the plant and the dry cask storage facility.

How the ruling may affect Vermont Yankee’s (VY) application to produce power through 2032 is unclear.

The Massachusetts Attorney General argued before federal regulators last year that federal officials needed to weigh the power station’s vulnerability to a terrorist attack due to the increased onsite storage of nuclear waste as a result of its recent power uprate and proposed license extension. VY’s dry cask storage is 70 feet in the air, outside of the main reactor containment vessel.

The advisory panel that hears arguments on such contentions, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, denied Massachusetts’ claim, which is now on appeal to the full five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

VY spokesman Rob Williams would only say the court decision is “currently under review.”

Sheehan said the agency disagrees with the Ninth Circuit’s interpretation.

“As indicated in the government’s brief in the Supreme Court, the NRC and the United States do not agree with the Ninth Circuit decision holding that the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] requires the agency to examine the environmental impacts of hypothetical terrorist attacks,” said Sheehan. “In the NRC’s view, the Atomic Energy Act [AEA], not the NEPA, is the appropriate tool for protecting nuclear facilities against nuclear attack. Since 9/11, the NRC has used its AEA authority aggressively to enhance security at nuclear facilities.”

In 2001, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) applied to the NRC for a license to construct and operate the storage installation of spent fuel from two nuclear reactors at its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo, CA.

In June 2003, the public interest group Public Citizen and the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace challenged the NRC’s effort to bypass rulemaking procedures in addressing nuclear facilities’ security against terrorist attacks. The NRC rejected the groups’ contentions and both groups petitioned the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review the NRC’s decisions.

In June 2006, the court ruled that the NRC erred in determining that the NEPA does not require the agency to consider the potential environmental impacts of terrorist attacks at nuclear facilities.

PG&E appealed, seeking to overturn the decision, and was rebuffed by the nation’s highest court. The NRC is now responsible for addressing the impacts of an intentional attack and local environmental groups are elated with the decision.

“This is a very important decision in terms of this meeting and, in fact, in terms of Vermont Yankee, because the Supreme Court decision will hold for all licensing issues and what VY is attempting to do is be relicensed. So the commission now has to rewrite the rules in terms of looking at environmental effects in terms of terrorism,” said Deb Katz of the Citizens Action Network, which is opposed to VY’s relicensure.

In fact, the NRC ruled this week that it would not let the Masschusetts attorney general’s contention be heard before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. However, the NRC itself will take up another request from the attorney general to have regulators alter their basic rulemaking assumptions on the environmental impacts of overstocked spent fuel pools and long-term, on-site storage.

The panel refused to suspend the relicensure hearings while it takes up the rulemaking change. However, if the NRC were to change rules they could apply to the Vermont Yankee application and its generic environmental impact statement (GEIS).

“If the NRC should find the Mass AG’s concerns well-founded, then one result might be that the GEIS designation is changed and a discussion of mitigation alternatives required,” the ruling added. “Another result might be that mitigation measures already put in place as a result of NRC’s post 9/11 security review could be generically determined to be adequate and consistent with the existing GEIS designation.”

Opponents aren’t holding their breath. In fact, Katz believes the NRC will just sweep the issue under the rug.

“What they’re going to attempt to say is, ‘This is no big deal,’ and the issue of storing more waste in the fuel pool or having dry cask storage on site is no big deal or heating up the river is no big deal or the chemicals they have on site that may create plumes of contamination which are not clear whether that’s happening is no big deal,” said Katz.

“Even though there may be some environmental impact, it’s better to have a nuke than to have solar panels or a windmill farm. It’s all about the environmental assessment.”

NRC officials are holding two public hearings on Entergy’s relicensure application, and the NRC’s draft environmental impact assessment of the nuclear power plant in Vernon.

The 650-page preliminary document concluded that VY posed no adverse environmental impacts and that the conclusions should not restrict the company’s request to operate beyond 2012.

How the decision will affect the public hearings on Jan. 31 is unclear, but Ed Anthes of Nuclear Free Vermont believes it could shift things in terms of VY’s license renewal.

“Until this ruling, the NRC’s position was that the environmental impact assessment did not have to address waste issues. That of course is one of the biggest problems with the reactor in Vernon is that there’s no place to put the waste and so they’ve got some of it on the banks of the Connecticut River and most of it in a swimming pool on the 6th floor. So that now will have to be addressed,” said Anthes. “It remains to be seen what the NRC is going to do. Will they go back and just do a supplement or will they cancel the meeting, and we should know that within the next couple of days.”

Sheehan, on the other hand, says past public hearings have made an impact more than the public may realize.

“There’s a very high level of engagement in Vermont. Last year, there was a hearing requested on the power uprate by the state of Vermont and the New England Coalition. [Although] the power uprate was implemented early last year, some of the issues that were raised in that process, Vermont Yankee committed to do some things they wouldn’t have done otherwise. For instance, they agreed to install additional monitors on steam lines and were extremely thorough as they were undergoing this power uprate. The NRC had a big role in that too but issues raised by the state, the [New England Coalition], by regular citizens really do help bring issues to the forefront.”

While the NRC credits those who are opposed to nuclear power as having made a difference, the union representing workers at Vermont Yankee believe they have played a key role, too.

“I believe that the continued safe operation and maintenance of the plant by the IBEW workers is one of the items the NRC looks at,” said Larry Smith of IBEW Local 300 Unit 8, which represents Vermont Yankee electrical workers. “While plant employees and families are supporters, there are also local businesses as well as other individuals that support the continued operation of Vermont Yankee. The groups that want to shut VY down tend to be more vocal than supporters and get more press coverage. But no matter what the outcome of the [upcoming] hearings or what the decision of the NRC will be, the members of the IBEW Local 300 unit 8 will continue to operate and maintain the plant in a safe and competent manner.”

Despite whom the NRC hearings serve, the clock is ticking for Vermont Yankee’s relicensing efforts.

As the process to relicense Vermont Yankee kicks into high gear, opponents are doing all they can to raise awareness about the dangers they say come with keeping the plant up and running. On Jan. 23, seven women were arrested after they chained themselves to the Vermont Yankee power plant entrance. More than a half-hour later, Frances Crowe, 87, Hattie Nestel, 68, Marcia Gagliardi, 58, Julia Bonifine, 38, Clare Chang, 50, and Dorthee, 78, were arrested and apprehended in Brattleboro. It has not been determined whether Vermont State’s Attorney Dan Davis will prosecute them.

On the same day, nuclear regulators said a key safety component at Vermont Yankee — the safety gauge in the coolant injection system— was not operating properly, and as a result the plant was powering down to fix it. This particular part, which allows operators to direct a large volume of water into the reactor vessel in case of emergencies, has broken down several times in the past.

Ray Shadis, a consultant for the anti-nuclear group New England Coalition, said trying to fix it while still operating the plant was like “driving the car along while trying to fix the brakes, except you’re taking the whole neighborhood for a ride.”

A plant spokesman said the part was fixed and the plant was back running at full power in a matter of hours.

Still, some hope that the issue of waste can open up the eyes of lawmakers and others who may not see nuclear power as a problematic fuel source.

The Legislature will vote, likely next year, on whether Vermont Yankee should be relicensed. That is because lawmakers, by statute, must approve of either the construction of a new power plant or a license extension.

“I think [the Supreme Court ruling] gives us more momentum and it gives us more legal standing. I imagine the Massachusetts attorney general is now going to appeal this to the appellate court and it should make this ruling into law in the [federal] circuit as well, because if the NRC is going to function as a rogue agency in which they’re not going to be accountable to the judiciary system, then who’s left to control them?” asked Katz.

In the end, Katz believes Vermont is at a crossroads for a viable energy future and it’s up to the Legislature to act in the best interests of all Vermonters.

“What legislators have to do is work as hard as they can to bring in renewable energy. Vermont can be proud to be a green state not a radioactive state [by leaving] a legacy of waste on the banks of the Connecticut River or continuing to pollute the environment and raise the temperature of the water. Let it really be green,” Katz said. “Let them bring in all these different ways of producing energy that are far less polluting and far less dangerous and actually good for the environment and we can do it now and replace Vermont Yankee.”