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A 38 year old nuclear power plant in southern Vermont is under intense scrutiny as it seeks permission to operate for another two decades past its scheduled shutdown date.
Vermont is the only state in the country that gives its lawmakers the final say on whether a nuclear plant gets a new license. Recent radiation leaks – and news that plant officials may have misled state officials – have put the plant’s future in doubt.
As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, John Dillon of Vermont Public Radio reports:.
Public pressure was building against the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, even before it disclosed that a plume of radioactive water was flowing underground toward the Connecticut River.
Yankee is located in Vermont’s southeastern corner, near the border with Massachusetts and New Hampshire. That’s one reason why a recent anti-nuclear protest march drew activists from around the region. Randy Kehler lives in Colrain, Massachusetts, just southwest of the reactor. He helped organize a walk this winter from southern Vermont north to Montpelier to oppose the plant’s re-licensing.
"We who live so close to this reactor, who are most victimized, most endangered not only by the daily radioactive emissions but by the constant awareness that there could be a catastrophic accident, our voices have to be taken into account."
By the time the protesters reached the gold-domed Statehouse in mid-January, Yankee had disclosed that it had found radiation leaking toward the river. And politicians were raising concerns about public safety – and Yankee’s credibility.
"We're just seeing the tip of the iceberg with this.
State Representative Tony Klein chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Vermont law gives Klein and 179 other lawmakers the right to cast a vote on Yankee’s future. To hear Klein talk, that future doesn’t look so bright.
“It is leaking. And now it is leaking in a horrific manner. And there is no way that anybody should or could sugarcoat this to the public."
But Yankee spokesman Rob Williams says the public isn’t in danger.
“Certainly the levels we’re looking at are in no way a cause for public concern for health and safety of the public.”
But Legislative leaders say that plant officials didn’t tell the truth about underground pipes that could leak. A legislative oversight panel asked Yankee repeatedly whether it had buried pipes that carry radioactive material, because similar pipes had failed at other plants. Yankee’s answer was no. That turned out not to be true. House Speaker Shap Smith says the company’s credibility is damaged.
“It causes serious concerns to me about whether we can trust them on any of the information that they’re providing to us.”
Yankee spokesman Rob Williams says the company didn’t deliberately try to mislead anyone. And Williams says the groundwater wells which turned up tritium – a radioactive isotope – close to the close to the river are designed to help pinpoint where the leak is coming from.
“The well that it was found in was one of three that were drilled specifically for this purpose – to monitor for tritium because it’s an easy indicator of contamination in the groundwater.”
About two-dozen plants have reported tritium leaks, including Indian Point in New York and Pilgrim Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Both power plants are owned by Entergy, the company that also owns Vermont Yankee.
The Environmental Protection Agency says tritium can cause cancer if it’s ingested. Yankee has reported tritium levels in a monitoring well higher than the federal drinking water standard. But it hasn’t shown up in the public drinking water supply.
Despite the radiation leak, some supporters of the plant are focusing on its economic benefits. George Clain represents the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He says Yankee and its contractors employ about 620 people, and their paychecks filter down into the local economy.
“When we’re talking about jobs, it’s what they earn, what they can spend, and what they can give back to the state of Vermont”.
Lawmakers have not set a date for a vote on Yankee this year. They say plant officials first need to provide more information about the radioactive leak.
Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative.