Nuclear Free Future host Margaret Harrington speaks with Fairewinds Founding Director Maggie Gundersen, Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen, Media Producer Nathaniel White-Joyal, and Administrator Samantha Donalds about the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee.
MH: This is Burlington and here we are in the Channel 17 newsroom. I’m Margaret Harrington of Nuclear Free Future Conversation and viewers, I’m pleased to welcome our guest with you on my right is Maggie Gundersen, President of Fairewinds Energy Education. And to her right is Samantha Donalds, administrator for Fairewinds Energy Education. And here is Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer, coming back from Fairewinds Energy Education, returning to Nuclear Free Future. And our first-time guest here, also from Fairewinds Energy Education is Nathaniel White-Joyal, who is the media producer for Fairewinds Energy Education. Welcome, everyone. I’m so glad that you can be here to discuss our topic, which is decommissioning Entergy Vermont Nuclear – Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. And let’s start from the top. Who wants to jump in on the momentous decision that Entergy made on August 26th?
MG: On August 26th, Entergy announced that at the end of this fuel cycle in 2014, they’re going to shut down the plant permanently.
MH: So when is the end of the fuel cycle?
AG: October or November of 2014. So it’s still a year away – a year plus a little bit away. They had to announce because they have to buy fuel. And if they weren’t buying fuel, their employees would know immediately that something is wrong and so when they made the decision not to buy fuel, they had to notify the employees, at which point they had to notify the public.
MH: And we the public heard that on August 26th. And the reasons given were not about the safety of the plant or about the many things that we’ve been talking about on this conversation for the past several years. But what was the main reason?
AG: Well, Entergy’s position is that the market didn’t justify keeping the plant running. You know, they tried to sell power to Vermont back in 2012 at 6-1/2 cents a kilowatt. The market was only at 4 cents so the Vermont utilities dug in and said, we’re not buying from you. So had the Vermont utilities bought from Vermont Yankee, they might have continued to run because effectively, Vermonters were subsidizing Vermont Yankee. But anyway, we got cheaper power by almost 2 cents, and then the combination of Fukushima Daiichi costs to fix it up and it’s a stand-alone old plant and they had to fix a condenser. They were looking at something on the order of a quarter of a billion in plant improvements. So they decided to pull the plug instead.
MH: And what were they waiting for, Arnie?
AG: In my opinion, just a couple of weeks before that, the federal courts ruled in their favor and basically said that the federal law preempts the Vermont law as far as nuclear safety issues go. I think they wanted that decision. If they had canceled the plant, likely the decision never would have been made. I think their minds were made up before that federal decision was ever made, and I think that they wanted it in hand so that when Vermont starts to argue about the decommissioning of the plant, they’ll be able to say hey, look, the federal government disagrees with you.
MH: That’s an interesting element in this discussion because most viewers, including myself, wouldn’t know about this or wouldn’t put it together such as that it’s a strategy for the public, is it not, to appeal to the credibility of Vermont Yankee?
AG: Yeah, I think they are going to claim that it was strictly market forces and that Vermonters had nothing to do with it, and that’s part of the strategy, too, is to belittle the efforts of Vermonters and the legislature and the activists. And then separately, though, they wanted that piece of ammo in their back pocket about the federal law. That was an important piece in their strategy about how to rein in Vermont and how to prevent us from down the road making other demands on them.
MG: And I think it’s one more layer on that. I think that there was an industry strategy on the nuclear industry heavily supported Vermont Yankee in its fight against Vermont. And there were all kinds of lobbying efforts and the same attorneys that the whole industry uses. So I think that they wanted to put that out there so the industry could pushback in any other state that tries to intervene, because there’s so many aging nuclear plants out there, and that many of them are leaking, many of them don’t have adequate emergency evacuation plans – on and on and on. And so I think they wanted to make sure that it becomes an issue only between them and the NRC because they have co-opted the NRC. The NRC does not regulate. It’s beholden to the industry.
MH: Exactly. And let’s emphasize for our viewers again the uniqueness of Vermont’s position; that the legislature voted to shut down Vermont Yankee. And is this unique in the United States for Vermont to have done that?
AG: Yeah, we have to remember it wasn’t a narrow victory. It was 26 to 4, including the leading Republican Randy Brock said that if antinuclear activists had infiltrated Vermont Yankee’s management, they couldn’t have screwed it up any worse than Entergy did all by themselves. So it wasn’t political lines or anything like that. Vermont Yankee made terrible decisions and lied under oath, and in the process, then, alienated Vermonters for a long time. I mean we don’t forget in Vermont. We trust until there’s a reason not to trust. And they crossed the line, and it’s hard to get back again.
MH: Right. And it’s true that Vermont is the only state whose legislature has that power.
SD: Yes, that’s correct.
MH: And Samantha, what do you think of the belittling of the anti-Vermont Yankee activists in all of this?
SD: I think it’s just very reactionary and you want to blame someone, so you might as well target a group of people who are saying the opposite of what you want them to be saying.
MH: Yes. But it is a targeting, I believe.
MG: I agree with Samantha. It’s definitely a targeting of the everyday people who have legitimate concerns. When you look at the Vermont Yankee site, and Samantha and I have talked about this and looked at that, if there’s an accident down there, the school bus drivers have to drive towards the plant to get families out, and many of those – this is just an example – many of those are mothers or fathers who have children in other school districts. So are you going to leave your kids somewhere else but still in an evacuation zone and drive in there? The roads can’t handle that kind of traffic. So they’ve got to drive in against people leaving the area and evacuating. There is not – as Samantha and I have talked about – there is not adequate evacuation procedures.
SD: And it covers 3 states as well – Massachusetts and New Hampshire are within the very small range of huge contamination if there were to be an accident. And down river – really all of Massachusetts is downriver.
MH: Is it true that Vermont Yankee is continuing those evacuation drills? Or are they in charge of those drills?
AG: Yeah, they have to continue the drills. I even think they have to continue while there’s fuel in the fuel pool, which is another 5 years after it shuts down. Once the fuel is in dry cask storage, it won’t be required, but the most dangerous part of that plant is the fuel pool, which is way up on the top. And it’s still the most dangerous part of Fukushima Daiichi 3 years after the accident. So the net effect is by shutting the plant down, you still have all that nuclear fuel sitting in the fuel pool for at least another 5 years. So it’s not a time to rest on our laurels and say the problem is behind us.
MH: Yeah. I want to bring up some of the media people – the journalists who have written so vituperatively against the closing of Vermont Yankee. And one in particular has written for The Wall Street Journal. And his name is James Conka. And he says one of the reasons given by Entergy was a combination of financial factors, including unfounded fears from the Fukushima disaster, even in the face of a stellar safety record and a completely different safety case. This is egregious, is it not, in the way we’re discussing it now about the impact of Fukushima on all of the nuclear power plants – the safety of all the nuclear power plants around the world, and in particular, Vermont Yankee, which – Nathaniel, is it the same reactor as Fukushima?
NWJ: Yes, it is. And I think that – and I’m sure Arnie will elaborate on this, but I think that it is going to suffer from the same issues that Fukushima Daiichi has suffered from. And it’s liable to have the same problems that caused the issue at Fukushima – not the natural disasters necessarily but the age is very similar. And so it’s likely to have the same problems.
SD: And that’s a question I asked Arnie the other day, actually, because I knew they were the same reactors. And so I said, well, Fukushima Daiichi was on the coast of the ocean, and Vermont Yankee is on an inland river in Vermont, so we’re not at a risk for a tsunami on the Connecticut River. So is it safer? Why would we be as worried about that?
AG: Yeah, the tsunami and the earthquake are not necessary to make a power plant like that explode like Fukushima Daiichi did. So this is the same design. What happened is the earthquake ruined the offsite power. That happens all the time at Vermont Yankee. The off-site power fails. And then the cooling system at the ocean was destroyed by the tsunami. But there’s ways to destroy that cooling system as well. So when you have those two things: loss of off-site power and loss of the ultimate heat sink, you will have a Daiichi kind of an explosion. There’s just no way around it. A plant that’s in the same situation is Pilgrim in Massachusetts. Same design. Oyster Creek, same design. So there’s 23 of these. Vermont Yankee leaving will make it 22 – that needed to make major modifications. But they cost so much and the plants are so old that the management is saying no, we’re not going to do it. The NRC is complicit in this scandal because what the NRC is allowing is they don’t have to make any Fukushima mods until about 2019. So they’ve got another six years to run without spending any money. The NRC knows that if they forced them to modify these plants to make them as safe as they should be or they could be, that the plants would shut down. And they’re not in the business of shutting power plants down. So they’re giving all these plants enormous latitude on meeting the Fukushima back-fits, the changes that are necessary. So that Wall Street Journal article is just absolutely wrong. Line by line, every single line is factually wrong, not just interpretation, but factually wrong.
MH: Could you take us back to the fuel pools that you mentioned at Vermont Yankee and explain even in comparing them to Fukushima, what is going on there and how the decommissioning will impact that?
AG: The design at Fukushima and the 23 plants in the US like Vermont Yankee are called VWR Mark 3 design with a Mark 1 containment. And what that means is the fuel pool’s at the top. We got smarter over time and we put the fuel pool down low, but back in the day, these were designed with fuel pools at the top. The Japanese were in a lot of ways more safety conscious than the Americans. They only had about 7 years worth of fuel in that pool whereas Vermont Yankee’s got 38 years of fuel in that pool.
MH: Why does it matter? What’s the difference? Tell our viewers.
AG: Yeah, the big deal is Vermont Yankee has got 700 times more radioactive Cesium in its fuel pool than all of the atom bombs that were every exploded in all of the atmospheric testing. And it’s open to the air essentially. There’s a little corrugated metal top over the top of the building like you can buy a shed at Sears, but the pool is just covered by a metal shed. So the question is, at Daiichi it was a Unit 4 pool and the fear of a fuel pool fire in the Unit 4 pool that caused President Obama to say to Americans, get out, get out of the way for 50 miles – it wasn’t the explosions in 1, 2 and 3. It was the fear of the fuel pool in Unit 4. And you’d think we’d take that lesson and get the fuel out of our fuel pools. But it costs money. It cost about 70 million dollars. And if a plant does it while they’re running, that money comes out of their pocket. But if they wait until it’s decommissioned, that money comes out of the decommissioning fund. So if they can push the NRC off and delay the decision to move that fuel, they save 70, 80, 100 million dollars. And they put the safety burden on us.
MH: Is that in fact what is going on right now?
AG: Yes. That’s exactly what’s going on right now. We’re picking up the risk and the people that own the reactors are picking up the profit.
MH: And when will Vermont Yankee officially move into decommission?
AG: Well, the plant shuts down 2014.
MH: Is that when it begins?
AG: Yes. November, 2014. And they will immediately take the lid off the nuclear reactor, take the top off the pressure cooker, and pull the nuclear shield out and put it in the fuel pool. They do that because you want to empty the pool and go to the lowest level of safety at the plant, which is all the fuel out of the nuclear reactor in the fuel pool. It will sit there for 5 years because the fuel is physically hot. It can’t be moved. After 5 years, though, it can be taken out of the fuel pool and put in dry casks. And they’re huge. They’re about 12 feet across, 12 feet high, might weigh 200 tons. And the nuclear fuel is placed inside them. They’re that huge for shielding, because this is very radioactive, but it’s not physically hot any more; it can be air cooled. So about 5 years from now – 6 years from now – Vermont Yankee will finally have its fuel pool empty and all of that material down on the ground. Daiichi had that – all of the dry cask storage at Fukushima Daiichi survived the earthquake and survived the tsunami. It was only the fuel in the fuel pool that was the big risk. So yeah, Vermonters and people in Massachusetts and New Hampshire need to be alert for the next 6 years.
MH: Where are the dry casks? Are the dry casks actually there now?
AG: Yeah. They’ll sit on the ground. There’s 6 or 7 there now, but they’ll need about 40. And they’ll sit out on a pad next to the nuclear plant. And where they’ll go is another question. We don’t have a place to send the nuclear fuel right now. So the dry casks will likely sit for 50 years on a field in Vernon until the United States government has its act together and we have a place to send it to.
MG: When we testified to the state legislature, we had major concerns about the dry cask storage, because they were a fleet buy that Entergy got a deal on. But they’re not the ideal casks for that location. They’re not shielded. The plan is not to berm them. They’re just going to be there. And there’s also a school very nearby. There’s all these reasons why they’re an inappropriate cask for that location.
MH: Maggie, when you say the plan is not to berm them, what is that?
MG: It would be safer if they put an earth berm near certain dry casks that are designed to be built into an earth berm so that they’re more stable, they’re protected more from any terrorists. There’s really important reasons to use that technology. And those weren’t used. A deal was cut with Entergy and Entergy has bought as a fleet for all of their plants, they were buying the same casks. And that isn’t ideal for Vermont where somebody could use a high-powered missile launcher or air – AK-47 air-powered rifle and be across the river and fire it at those casks. I mean that’s – it’s ludicrous.
AG: It’s called hardened on-site storage – HOSS – and in Europe, they berm them and they put a roof over them as well so that you can’t see them from the air and you can’t attack them from the sides. So the European standards on storing fuel in these fields are a lot more rigid than the American standards. And again, the utilities have convinced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they don’t have to spend that money. So it’s – it all boils down to, we’re trading safety for profit.
MH: And continuing to do so with – you say that there are several, maybe 40 storage containers that are needed. And we have no guarantee that they’ll be hard on-site storage. But who is responsible for making these decisions? Is it solely Entergy.
MG: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy, but again, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the 5 commissioners are all people that came out of the industry and have been appointed and are beholden to the industry. I think there are only 2 commissioners that ever left the NRC and went back – and didn’t go back and work for the industry. And that’s Peter Bradford, who’s from Vermont. And he went to work for New York State as head of their regulatory agency – utility regulatory agency. And Victor Gilinsky. And those are the only two commissioners who didn’t go back and make multi-million dollar paychecks from the nuclear industry. So they’re bought.
MH: Yeah. Money is the undercurrent in all of this.
AG: We have one case of a commissioner sending out letters while he was a commissioner, saying I’m leaving, why don’t you give me a job. And the Inspector General determined that he had crossed the line. But he had already left by then and he wound up making a million and a half a year. While he was still on the board and once he already had the job –
MG: And making decisions, yeah.
AG: He made decisions that favored his new employer. And that’s pretty common with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Yeah.
MG: I want to go back and talk a little bit about the euphemism that the industry calls safe store. Because as we’re talking about decommissioning and Samantha has given it a great name and I hope you’d share that with everybody.
SD: Lazy store.
MH: Safe store is lazy store.
MG: It leaves this legacy to our children or Samantha’s grandchildren – our children’s grandchildren – Arnie’s and mine. And it’s just outrageous. That means that carcass would sit on the bank of the Connecticut River for 60 years. And I think Arnie can certainly more adequately talk about what’s happened at a couple of other single-site plants. Vermont Yankee is a single-site plant. And without adequate oversight, what could happen in terms of leakage while it sits there for 60 years?
AG: Yeah. The NRC made a fundamental change 15 years ago when they allowed these plants like Vermont Yankee not to be owned by utilities, but to spin off and become these things called Limited Liability Corporations. The only asset Vermont Yankee has is Vermont Yankee. And the minute it shuts down, the asset becomes a liability. And so if they run out of money and they throw up their hands and say we’re bankrupt, there’s no corporation that you can get to behind them because the NRC has allowed these limited liability corporations to own Vermont Yankee. There are legal structures to prevent Vermonters from going to up to Entergy and saying you have to pay - because you got the profits, it’s time for you to pay for the cleanup. The LLC structure allows money to go up to Entergy but never after a bankruptcy, money to return. Shame on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for allowing that 15 years ago. They were under a lot of pressure from Congress, that was under a lot of pressure from the utilities. So we basically have brought it on ourselves through our elected representatives. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed a bunch of utilities to make a lot of money 15 years ago and spin these off. So now we’re stuck with a carcass on the banks of the river for 60 years. If, after 60 years, there’s not enough money, the company can just declare bankruptcy and walk away from it, sticking Vermonters with this carcass.
MH: So that’s a real possibility.
AG: Well, right now the fund’s got about $580 million, but the plant’s going to need something like a billion or more to clean.
SD: That’s without any unexpected –
AG: Yeah, that’s if everything goes well, it’ll be a billion or a billion two to clean. And so the costs are growing at one rate, and the fund hopefully if the stock market doesn’t crash, is growing faster. And eventually those two cross and then you can afford to decommission the plant. But if there’s a problem, if they find that Vermont Yankee has been leaking for years and it’s gone underneath the plant, suddenly it’s a lot more expensive. And it happened. We’re not talking about pie in the sky stuff here. The Connecticut Yankee plant just 100 miles down the Connecticut River, was being decommissioned and they found contamination in the ground. The plant had had a leak for 40 years that no one knew about. Strontium had entered the groundwater and the cost went up by a billion dollars in Connecticut. But Connecticut Yankee was owned by the utilities in Connecticut. So what they did was they cut a deal and they said look, your electric bill in Connecticut is going to be 100 million dollars a year higher for 10 years until we pay this billion dollars back. Well, in Vermont, we don’t have that. Vermont Yankee isn’t owned by the utility. It’s owned by Entergy. And so if they have a problem that they can’t afford, let’s just declare bankruptcy and walk away and stick us with this carcass.
MG: And the difference there is that in Connecticut, the rate payers had to pay it off. Because there was a vehicle to do it. In Vermont, it would go to all the taxpayers of Vermont to have to clean it up and there’s no way to get it out of any other entity.
AG: And like Maggie said, there’s that generational transfer, you know. People like us used that power so therefore we should completely pay for it. But 60 years from now, if they find there’s a billion-dollar problem, now we’re talking about our grandkids paying for a mistake that our generation made. And those kind of generational transfers or risks really aren’t fair.
MH: The prospect of bankruptcy and of a 60-year price tag on this is really horrible to talk about right now. Is there any other solution to this? Is there any way that people in Vermont can get through this without this risk and this enormous price tag?
AG: Stay tuned for the next legislative season. I’m sure that’ll be a big topic. And by the way, there are historical precedents of bankruptcies during decommissioning. Not of power reactors but of other contaminated sites. The owner has run out of money, thrown up their hands and walked away and the municipality or the state has been forced to pay to clean up the radioactive decommissioning.
MG: And the federal government, too, because look what some of the super fund sites are. They’re toxic waste dumps that all of our taxes – we as taxpayers pay for that. Could we segue into one other part since you asked about leaks? We were talking earlier about the similarity with Daiichi. And Fukushima Daiichi has had so much news recently about the leaking tanks. And so I wanted to let Arnie and Nat talk about that a little bit. Nathaniel has done a graphic that we’ll put in here to show the viewers, but I’d like them both to talk about that; and what he learned and how he made the graphic. Because if you bring it back to Vermont Yankee, if that’s sitting there for 60 years, there’s no way to prevent leaks from what’s sitting there, or to know if there are leaks spreading in the aquifer and spreading into the river.
AG: Samantha said it about 5 minutes ago when she was talking about Vermont Yankee’s on a river. In a way, thank God Fukushima Daiichi is on the Pacific Ocean because the ocean is big and so the contamination gets spread out over zillions of gallons of ocean water. But if that accident had occurred on the Great Lakes, you’d wipe out the water supply for 40 million people. If it happened on the Connecticut River, you wouldn’t just wipe out Vernon, but the entire Connecticut River and Long Island Sound and New York City because of the radiation flowing down the river into the Sound, which is a lot smaller than the Pacific Ocean. If it happened on the Rhine or the Danube, you’d have the same problem. So I think the policy makers are missing the lesson of what’s going on at Fukushima, that the plant is leaking. And Nat’s done a phenomenal graphic on how these leaks are going out into the ocean. But thank God it’s the ocean, which is huge and that dilutes this. If the policy makers look at these inland sites – Mississippi River, Missouri River, Great Lakes – they would say, oh, my God, we can wipe out half a continent – the water supply to half a continent is at risk if this happens. The lessons from Fukushima are not being internalized by policy makers.
MH: Exactly. And even now today, say, in The New York Times, the three top stories are about Fukushima. Could you bring us up to speed on what is happening right now?
NWJ: What’s been happening in Fukushima is the water that’s being used to cool the fuel that’s been destroyed by the earthquake and the tsunami and the explosions, is being stored in these big tanks. And these tanks are not shielded, so radiation is just radiating from them as they sit there in the middle of the countryside. But they’re also leaking water. And that water is running into the groundwater into the water source and spreading out into the Pacific. And because there’s been so much deterioration of the land already - again, because of the earthquake and the tsunami – that ground that Fukushima was built on is no longer as stable as it once was. So it continues to be soggy. And that continues to let more groundwater in. And that groundwater gets contaminated. And that’s all flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
AG: So Nat made this really cool graphic that shows that. It’s up on our site.
MG: And we brought a clip here.
MH: Okay. So we’ll watch that.
AG: (On clip): The condition of the site right now is precarious. As long as there’s no earthquake, it’ll be okay. But that’s a big if. We’re sort of counting on an earthquake not occurring in a country that’s prone to earthquakes. And by an earthquake, I’m talking about a richter 7 at or near the site. Now there’s 3 problems with the site right now. The first is the enormous amount of water that’s stored on the site and hundreds of tanks. Tokyo Electric isn’t letting us know exactly what the radioactive material is in those sites, but there’s so much radiation in those tanks and we do know that the exposure to people who are outside of the plant boundary is very, very high. Now that tells us there’s this phenomenon called Bremsstrahlung and the decay of radioactive material in those tanks is releasing x-rays in very high quantities off site. That means that those tanks are extraordinarily radioactive and if there is an earthquake, none of them are seismically qualified. So we could easily have a situation where 700 tanks spring leaks, it runs across the surface of the site and into the Pacific Ocean. That’s more contamination in those tanks than has already been released into the Pacific Ocean. So number one is an earthquake destroying the tanks and causing them to leak. Number two is the concern I’ve had for years, which is the structural condition of unit 4. Unit 4’s fuel pool as the most fuel and the hottest fuel. It was recently changed out. So a loss of cooling in the unit 4 fuel pool can still lead to a fuel pool fire and contamination of vast amounts of the country. The chance of a fuel pool fire diminishes with time because the fuel becomes cooler. It’s not there yet but it is approaching the point where if the pool were to lose water, it’s likely that the fuel would not catch on fire. That assumes the fuel stays intact. If the earthquake is significant enough to distort the fuel and cause it to collapse, all bets are off, and you can still get heating to the point of creating a fire if the fuel were to break and not be cooled. But the third thing, Akio, is what you referred to as the unit 3 problem. Unit 3 has less fuel in it than unit 4. That’s good. The bad news, though, is that unit 3 is much more severely damaged than unit 4. So if unit 4 could ride out a Richter 7 earthquake, it’s likely unit 3 will not. So the risk of a structural failure in unit 3 is higher, although there’s somewhat less nuclear fuel in the fuel pool, it still presents in my mind now rapidly becoming the single biggest risk on the site is a structural failure of the unit 3 building because of all the damage from the massive detonation shockwave that hit the building. The magnitude of this problem is huge. It’s as if we – the Japanese should be fighting this as if it were a war. And you don’t fight a war on a budget.
NWJ: And since I created that graphic, the number of tanks filled with this incredibly radioactive water has increased exponentially and continues to increase, because the fuel continues to need to be cooled. So it’s a problem that’s getting bigger; it’s not one that’s getting smaller.
MH: It’s an emergency situation in Japan now and people have called for it to be treated by the federal government there – they don’t call it the federal government there, do they? But by their government as an emergency. But it is not – is it true that it is not being treated as an emergency?
NWJ: It’s not being treated properly. I believe the government has been put in control but their ideas about how to control this leakage of radioactive water doesn’t really work right. And in the film that we released, Arnie talks about good, solid ideas that will work, and they’re dismissed. If we’re going to freeze the ground around Fukushima – and I say we because it affects the entire world, it’s not just Japan, what happens when we lose off-site power? The ground’s not going to be frozen again. But if we follow what Arnie said and we put in a Zeolite trench, the Zeolite will absorb the radiation and that water won’t be as contaminated.
MH: Could you elaborate on what a Zeolite trench is?
NWJ: I’ll turn that over to Arnie. He has a little bit more information than me about that.
AG: The problems at Daiichi now were evident 2 years ago. I was one of the people – and the book Maggie and I wrote talks about the need to put a fence around the plant, a trench around the plant to keep the radioactive material from leeching back into the groundwater. Two years ago it was a lot cheaper because radiation hadn’t gotten out too far. Now we’re at a place where the radiation is in the groundwater further out and the Japanese are talking about building an ice wall that would go from the grade of the plant all the way down to bedrock and it would be something on the order of 2 miles long. So a two-mile-long ice wall. They would stick refrigerator units into the ground and freeze it for two miles. Now freezing ground has been done in the past. Engineers used it to pick up the leaning tower of Pisa. They put ice on one side of it and they moved it up a little bit to keep it from toppling. But no one’s ever built a two-mile-long ice wall. The Japanese want to spend a half a billion on it and they want to be patted on the back and some sort of seal of approval. The plant site is going to cost 100 billion to clean up. And nobody’s addressing that. It’s not going to come from Tokyo Electric. They’re broke. But the Japanese government doesn’t want its people to understand the true cost of the cleanup. So this is another Band-Aid. Let’s put a trench around the plant and freeze it, when in fact had they acted two years ago, this problem would have been cheaper and we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in right now.
MH: When you say had they acted two years ago, are you saying that that time is past for any alternative measure to be taken?
AG: Well, the horse is out of the barn. Radiation is in the soil and moving outward much more so than it was two years ago. So they could have gotten away with this Zeolite. Zeolite is a volcanic ash and in the United States, we’re using it at a nuclear waste dump up in New York State in West Valley. And it’s very effective in absorbing radiation. So what I proposed two years ago was to build a trench around the plant and the problem isn’t keeping the water from getting out. It’s keeping the clean water from getting in. So what I proposed was after you’ve built that trench, then outside the plant, suck the groundwater down. That water is going to be clean because the Zeolite will prevent movement of radiation outward. And if you prevent the water from coming in, then suddenly your problem about contaminated water goes away because you’re not getting this infusion like Nat talked about; the infusion of groundwater into the plant that then gets contaminated. By the way, the ice wall won’t be done for two more years, so we’ll be five years into this nuclear accident leaking into the Pacific and still there will be no remedy.
MH: But meantime, is there any chance to put forward the Zeolite solution?
AG: It boils down to money. I don’t think anybody in the government of Japan wants to admit the cost. Because they would like to get 50 other nuclear plants up and running. And if the people of Japan knew that they were on the hook for 100 billion to clean the plant and 400 billion to clean the prefecture – that’s like a state the size of Connecticut – imagine stripping six inches off of the soil for all of Connecticut. It’s about a 400 billion-dollar job. So if the people of Japan recognized the true cost of the cleanup, they’re likely to tell the government, we don’t want to start these 50 nuclear power plants up. We’d rather go with alternative energy sources. So the Abe government – the Chairman of Japan right now is a guy named Abe – the Prime Minister of Japan – is hesitant to tell the people the true cost of this repair because the backlash would be astronomical.
MG: It’s interesting, the Prime Minister, because he’s very pro nuclear and he keeps talking about the necessity of starting the plants up and I think he’s very beholden to the industry. His wife is very outspoken against starting them and talking about the women and children who have been harmed and why they need to keep all the nuclear plant shut down, so there’s this interesting dichotomy.
MH: Yes. And you had spoken before about the support that women especially in Japan had given to the anti-nuclear movement there – anti Daiichi.
MG: And you had a couple of women on your show from Japan who talked about that.
MH: Yes. Yes.
AG: The good news is that it has been women in the forefront. This is a culture of – a male-dominated culture. And it’s the women of Japan who have stepped up and are demanding change. When I was there last August, a woman came up to me in tears and said, I want to thank you, she said, I was leaving Fukushima and I was taking my kids with me. And my husband said no, the government says it’s safe and I’m going to stay. And I asked him to watch Fairewinds’ videos. And he decided no, he would leave, too. So that’s just one of many, many cases where women have taken the lead and demanded safety, not just for themselves but for their kids. So for the women, it’s not about they and their husbands or their parents; it’s about their children. And children are 20 times more radiosensitive than adults.
MH: What does that mean?
AG: Well, young girls – the chance of cancer in a population is a number, but that population has old people and young people. And so if I get exposed to radiation at my age, the odds are I’ll die of something else before the radiation kills me. But if a child gets exposed to radiation or an infant or somebody in utero gets exposed, at that point, the cancers are much more likely to manifest themselves than they are in an older person, because the kids’ cells are growing faster. So that’s called radiosensitivity. Kids are 20 times more radiosensitive than adults. So the Japanese mothers get that, and I think it’s critical that they continue to speak truth to power and demand protection, which they’re not getting right now.
MH: Yes. And viewers, let’s listen to this. The government has told us through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that Vermont Yankee had 20 more years in it and yet we are faced today with the fact that the real reason for its closing down is put to money reasons and not to the safety reasons and to all of these issues that we’ve been talking about now. So viewers, with me, let’s wake up about the real issues here and real life-and-death issues. It really is so frustrating to be faced with a media that is completely – either they dismiss Fukushima in the context of the safety of nuclear power and say that it’s like another world. And over here we have the 20-year extensions and we have the building – the threatened building of new nuclear power plants. We have the nuclear waste issue, which you touched, upon a little bit here Arnie, when you said that the waste from Vermont Yankee is not going anywhere; it’s going to sit there. Could we just go into that for a little bit now? What is going to happen in decommissioning with the waste? It’s just going to sit there? Is that the answer?
MG: Well, there’s different levels of waste and it depends on what method of decommissioning they choose and whether they dismantle in a short amount of time. I think there are several issues. The unions have spoken heavily as have some of the residents down there about their concern about the job market. But initially it takes many more people to be brought on site and do the decommissioning work. So it can be a boon of – a boon for the economy at the same time that they can be creating job retraining for people that will be permanently laid off. And the legislature could be working on, what are they going to do for that area of the state. If the plant sits there for the 60 years, there are all types of issues. And I think dismantling can happen in various ways. There’s a firm that comes in and takes out all the low-level radioactive waste. And I think it’s important for our viewers to know what is low-level radioactive waste. That’s everything except the fuel. So when people say oh, low level, it’s just the gloves that were thrown away or the outerwear. It’s not. It’s every single thing in the plant except the fuel. The fuel is the high-level waste.
AG: Let me give you an example. If this glass were full of high-level waste – nuclear fuel – and I put it here. We would be dead in 10 minutes. That’s what the industry calls high-level waste. So anything other than that; something that can kill you in a day or two is considered low-level waste. So there’s nuclear fuel and essentially everything else. The nuclear fuel will stay on site for a long, long time. The remainder, though, what we call low level, can get shipped to Texas where there’s a waste dump. Vermont and Texas are in a compact together. Texas has agreed to take our low-level waste and bury it in a landfill on the desert near Mexico in a very impoverished area. And they want to take waste for the country so that they can employ a bunch of people in this impoverished area. But in fact, what we call low level would still cause someone to die if they were exposed to it over a period a little longer than 10 minutes. So the plan is take Vermont Yankee apart; the question is when. Do we do it in 5 years or do we do it in 50 years? And right now Entergy is in charge of the pot of money. And unless we can wrestle back the pot of money and say no, we’re going to do it faster – you’re going to do it faster Entergy – we could be stuck with that carcass for 50 or 60 more years.
MH: Now you’re talking about the decommissioning fund. And who paid for the decommissioning fund?
AG: Vermonters. When the plant was sold to Entergy, there was 300 million in the fund. And Vermonters have paid about 10 million dollars a year over 30 years and it was invested in the market. Well, the Dean administration and the Douglas administration made a deal with Entergy that they’d buy the plant and they’d get the decommissioning fund and they didn’t have to put a penny more into it. And that it would grow with the market and there would be more than enough money come about 2020 to dismantle the plant. That was part of the political deal that was made in 2002. Well, now Entergy is saying there’s not going to be enough money come 2020 or 2022. We need to wait until 2060 or maybe 2070. So the representations that Entergy made when they bought the plant that they didn’t have to put any of their profits into the fund to make it grow, are now proven to be wrong and that Entergy should have been adding to that fund all along. But again, if they added to the fund in 2003 or 4 or 5 when they owned it, putting money in the fund is not the same as putting money in their stockholders’ pocket. So again, we picked up the risk. The stockholders picked up the profit.
NWJ: Well, isn’t there a good example of them breaking down or dismantling a plant properly in Maine?
AG: Maine Yankee. We have a bad example in Connecticut Yankee because of the contamination under the plant. But we have a great example in Maine Yankee. The plant was dismantled in a little more than 10 year and is now a green field with nuclear fuel in a corner of it. So the nuclear fuel is a separate issue from tearing apart the rest of the plant. Maine did it right; Connecticut did it wrong. And Vermont isn’t going to do it at all for potentially 60 years.
SD: That’s the lazy store.
MH: That’s the lazy storage.
SD: And what I think is so interesting is just how this all just comes down to money and how expensive a nuclear plant is, even in the decommissioning phase. I mean when we heard that the plant was shutting down, we were like oh, it’s great, it’s over, we’re done. But there’s so many more years of work and so much more money that has to be spent. And the interesting thing, to go back to what Maggie was saying about kind of the economics of it and how does this affect the little town of Vernon where this plant is, is that there’s so much industry and work that goes into decommissioning and so much money that has to be spent. And that goes to people who are working as well. And it’s actually possible to clean up these areas and to make them safe and I think that would be a great job opportunity.
AG: The example there is Maine Yankee. I mean Maine Yankee and the communities around it didn’t collapse into an Appalachian kind of a poverty. The plant was dismantled, life goes on and that could happen in Vernon, too. Shame on Vernon for even thinking they had a 20-year commitment to run this plant and planning a future that Vermont Yankee would continue. The history of nuclear plants says no plant has ever run for more than 47 years. And Vernon was saying, well, we’re going to count on this plant running for 60 or maybe 80. They were addicted to that cash flow. And as Samantha said, there’s an opportunity not to lose jobs if it were quickly dismantled, they stand a chance of actually increasing jobs for something on the order of 5 or 6 or 7 more years after the 5 years out.
MG: And using that time and some state funding and legislative encouragement to create job retraining down there or look for what they want to bring in after that. Because there is a trained – there are people who are well trained in that whole area and well educated. And so they could switch to other –
MH: Exactly. But are you saying that we do have to wait? Are we constricted right now to this long wait period before things can come together?
SD: Well, it’s just what Entergy has chosen to do.
AG: No, that gets back to the legal decision that was made two weeks before the plant – it seems to me –
MG: Before the plant shut down.
AG: Before the plant was announced to shut down. It seems like the appellate court has said that we have no say in anything safety related at Entergy. And the decommissioning fund is controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Entergy. So by their waiting for that legal decision, it’s part of this massive chess game that was occurring. I think the momentum is on Entergy’s side here. I can’t see their stockholders sending profits to Vermont to decommission Vermont Yankee sooner. I just don’t see that in the cards.
MH: Is the chess game over?
AG: I don’t think so. I think there’s still some things that the legislature can do over the next year. I think this January to March legislative season is going to be a – the issue of decommissioning will be a real big one in the statehouse.
MG: And one of those parts is the standard of what’s a Greenfield. It says that it’ll be returned to a green field, but what that means in terms of how much radioactivity is left in the ground is an issue that has to be discussed, because what is it? 25 percent the NRC says –
AG: 25 millirem. The NRC’s criteria for release is 25 millirem higher than it was before. So the field is whatever it was back in 1970 – it can be 25 millirem higher and they’re out of there. They’re done. The license is terminated. But the word green field entered into the 2002 agreement, but it’s not in the law. There is no concept of what is green field. In fact, Maine used the term green field to mean 10 millirem higher than the background was before. So it’s sort of a term of art now, but it hasn’t been memorialized in the law as 10 millirems. So Vermont – Entergy is committed to a green field. Vermont believes that that should be 10 millirem higher, but the NRC will give up the license, will allow Entergy to walk away from a field at 25 millirem. So there’s another battle out there is what if the NRC says okay, you’re license is terminated and they’re not at the Vermont standard? Do we have any leverage over Entergy to push them to be cleaner like they committed to in 2002? I think there’s going to be a lot of money in this for lawyers for a long time.
MH: Yes. And with the issue that Samantha brought up about money being at the root of all of this, is something to watch; to follow the money on this. Well, in the few minutes that we have, I’d like each of you, if you would, to tell me what you hope for in all of this. And I would invite you to come back for another session on this, because it’s an ongoing issue, of course, and we never know exactly how bad it’s going to be, actually. But I’d like to ask you what you hope for in the immediate future on this, the issue of decommissioning Vermont Yankee?
NWJ: What I hope for is kind of unrealistic, of course. I hope for them to decommission and demolish the site within 10 years and meet the standard of Maine Yankee. But I don’t think that that’s going to happen. Entergy has not said that that’s their intent.
MH: Thank you.
AG: And I would hope that the political minds in Montpelier over the next 6 months will come up with some kind of a compromise with Entergy to get it done faster than 60 years. It may not be 10, but the plant only ran for 40 and we’re going to have the carcass lie there for 60? Come on. There’s got to be a faster way of doing it. So I hope that political forces are applied to Entergy to get the carcass removed in less than 60 years.
SD: Well, for me, I’m originally from Massachusetts, so I worry about the area in Massachusetts that’s right downstream of – right on the Connecticut River downstream of Vermont Yankee. And I would just hope that someone out there in charge is thinking responsible thoughts and willing to take care of the contamination that isn’t just within Vermont’s borders.
MG: I would like to see the fuel pool emptied and the dry cask storage, especially the older fuel, taken down as soon as possible. I know there is a nationwide move, a lot of interveners are petitioning the NRC to have that done because of all of those fuel pools are at risk of explosion or fire. And as long as that fuel is sitting there for the next year plus while the plant is still running and then while they’re waiting to move it to dry cask, if the older fuel was taken out that’s been there for 35 years, it would protect everyone much more. So that’s my wish.
MH: Thank you, Maggie. And thanks, Samantha and Arnie and my dear friend, Nathaniel. Thank you for your vision and your insight and your commitment to this crucial issue for us here in Vermont and in American and in the world. And I appreciate so much your ongoing work in this with Fairewinds Energy Education. And viewers, let’s invite them back again to give us more insight. And we hope that the story will unfold in a more positive way. But given that you are working on this, I believe that we can have some positive outlook. Thank you very much.
MG: Thank you, Margaret, for hosting this nuclear-free conversation.
MH: Thank you, viewers, too.