Leaks and Lies Bring Down Vermont Yankee

On February 24, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to shut down the 38-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant when its operating license expires in 2012. This decisive action was a clear response to public anger over a fast-growing radioactive leak at the plant and a related string of lies propagated by its owner, Entergy Corporation.

Vermont Yankee is one of a handful of aging Northeastern nuclear plants bought up at fire-sale prices by Entergy since the turn of the century. Others include 2 at Indian Point, 35 miles north of Manhattan, FitzPatrick in upstate New York, and Pilgrim in Plymouth, Massachusetts. These bargain-basement buy-ups make Entergy the second largest owner and operator of nuclear plants in the nation. New Orleans-based Entergy has been running these old nukes into the ground ever since. In the case of Vermont Yankee, picked up for $180 million in 2002, the company received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006 to "uprate" its operating capacity to 120 percent, 20 percent above its designed rate.

After Entergy cranked Vermont Yankee up to 120 percent, one of its cooling towers collapsed in 2007. Whether related to the uprate or not, it made quite a stir. In addition, it emerged that Entergy had not been saving money to cover the costs of closing down and dismantling Vermont Yankee, as required, creating concerns that Vermonters would be left holding the bag.

Entergy responded by trying to assure the public that the shortfall would be made up by its investments in Wall Street. Then Wall Street collapsed too. Nonplused, Entergy went ahead with a plan to "spin off" its old nukes into a supposedly separate entity, Enexus, which would take out a $350 million loan, using the deteriorating plants as its sole collateral, and kick back $300 million to Entergy. The plan has yet to win necessary approval from Vermont and New York State. Critics have charged that this is all a scam to make millions for Entergy, as well as to distance itself from future financial responsibilities, such as the shut-down costs at its old nuclear plants.

Key to Entergy’s scheme is securing operating license renewals for its Northern nukes. The NRC originally issued 40-year operating licenses, but recently has been handing out 20-year license renewals like plastic beads at Mardi Gras. This would extend the plants’ operating lives, theoretically, to 60 years.

Entergy applied for an extension for Vermont Yankee in 2006, but, because Entergy had already agreed to give the Vermont legislature decision-making power on the extension, on February 24 they used that power, throwing a wrench into Entergy’s machinations.

Vermont’s Radioactive Lake

On January 7, a few weeks before President Obama brought Congress roaring to its feet during his State of the Union speech with an impassioned call for a "new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants," Entergy filed a report with the NRC that "identified a very low concentration of tritium" groundwater in one monitoring well at Vermont Yankee, from a sample taken in November 2009. Tritium is radioactive hydrogen, a byproduct of nuclear fission and a known carcinogen. When it combines with water and enters our bodies, it can remain for years.

As the Montpelier Times Argus reported on January 16, "[M]embers of the [Governor] Douglas administration expressed outrage that officials from the nuclear power plant may have misled regulators." The paper also reported that on May 20 of last year, Jay Thayer, Vermont Yankee vice president of operations, responded to a question by the state utility regulatory board about the presence of radioactive materials in pipes under the plant: "I can do some research, but I don’t believe there are active piping systems underground containing (radioactive) fluids today."

But it has now been revealed that the tritium is suspected to be leaking from the area in question. On top of that, Thayer never got back to the regulatory board. The Times Argus reported as well that the tritium levels in samples from the well, originally 700 picocuries per liter last November, "had jumped to 17,000 and 14,500 parts per liter last week." (A pico is a trillionth of a part. A curie is a measure of the amount of radioactivity in something or someone.)

The same Times Argus article reported that Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders were calling on the NRC to investigate the mess at Vermont Yankee. Meanwhile, the levels of tritium in groundwater kept shooting up. Two samples from early February measured 70,500 and over 80,000 picocuries per liter. On February 4, the Associated Press reported a sample "more than 37 times higher than the federal safe drinking water limit," of "nearly 775,000 picocuries per liter," came from a "newly dug well" at Vermont Yankee. The EPA limit for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 picocuries per liter. By February 9, the Rutland Herald reported levels of 2.38 and 2.52 million picocuries/liter on consecutive days.

William Irwin of the Vermont Department of Health described the contaminated ground water at Vermont Yankee as "a very large area" and said the leaks had been going on for "months or even a year or two." That same day, the Burlington Free Press reported that Dr. Wendy Davis, commissioner of the state department of health, stated, "It is reasonable to assume that radioactive tritium leaking from Vermont Yankee is getting into the Connecticut River." Vermont Yankee is situated on the Connecticut River in southern Vermont.

The river flows south down through western Massachusetts and the length of Connecticut before emptying into the Long Island Sound. Subsequently, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called for a federal investigation of his state’s Pilgrim nuke plant, to see if it had problems similar to Vermont Yankee. He also requested an NRC halt to processing both plants’ applications for 20-year license extensions.

New Hampshire Governor John Lynch "asked for a federal investigation into safety and management at Vermont Yankee" as well, according to the February 10 Bloomberg News.

WBUR, Boston’s National Public Radio station, reported on February 11, "Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin, whose district includes Vernon [site of Vermont Yankee], said, ‘Tritium right now is leaking into the Connecticut River and floating down towards Massachusetts. And the time is well past when we can pretend we have a new, modern nuclear plant sitting on the banks of the Connecticut River. We don’t. It was designed to be shut down in 2012. We should land this airplane on time’."


On February 15, the North Adams Transcript reported that Vermont Yankee’s "zone of contamination by its radioactive tritium leak as about the size of a football field and 30 feet deep."

For its part, Entergy tried to cover up its "misstatements" by differentiating between buried and hanging underground pipes. It put Jay Thayer and other officials at the plant on "administrative leave" and sent a team from New Orleans to carry out its own investigation. The company contended it didn’t really need Vermont Yankee to go forward with its spin-off scheme and wasn’t making money off the plant anyway.

Entergy also refused to respond to calls to shut down the plant so as to expedite the search for the tritium leaks. Instead, it continued to keep it running at 120 percent capacity.

Arnie Gundersen, a whistleblower whose criticisms of Vermont Yankee have been key in bringing its problems to light, observed, "If Vermont Yankee continues to operate, the tritium leak might soon be followed by releases of other, more dangerous materials like Cobalt-60. Tritium is often a precursor of other substances since it moves through soil faster than other materials."

Meanwhile, the NRC admitted that 27 of the nation’s 104 operating commercial nuclear plants have a history of tritium leaks. Another of Entergy’s old Northeast nukes, FitzPatrick in upstate New York, has an active leak now. Like the one at Vermont Yankee, its source had not been found as of this writing in early April.

While the Obama administration is calling for billions in federally guaranteed loans to build new nuclear plants, the folly of first generation nuclear power continues to play out.


Michael Steinberg is a veteran activist and writer and the author of Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation in Southeastern Connecticut.