The Vermont legislature, when considering whether or not to allow Vermont Yankee to operate for another twenty years past its original license, was not permitted to consider safety issues. The people of Vermont, however, are under no such restriction. In fact, we must scrutinize the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is in charge of reactor safety, to know if we should trust their actions and judgements.
The NRC's record does not inspire confidence. In spite of serious leaks, near meltdowns, non-compliance with regulations, and false testimony by reactor owners and operators, the NRC has approved every single application for reactor re-licensing that has been requested. In the aftermath of the continuing Fukushima meltdown, regulators in countries across the globe are re-assessing or suspending their nuclear programs. They recognize that the disaster in Japan is an indication that the best laid plans can go awry, and they want to be sure that their nations don't experience the same catastrophe through the complacency of regulators. But in America, president Obama, without knowing the extent of the reactor damage in Japan, without having a clue about how much radiation was rising into the atmosphere or pouring into the oceans, stood in front of the cameras to boldly (and erroneously) say that no radiation would reach our shores. And his NRC proceeded to blithely issue a license renewal to Vermont Yankee, a virtual twin to the Fukushima reactor, without so much as a pause to consider the implications of the disaster and how we could prevent one here. Instead they relied upon the same boiler plate statements they have always used, intoning that the reactor design took natural disasters into consideration and that, besides, no tsunami would ever hit Vernon. (Did anyone tell them about the hurricane and flood of 1927?)
Indeed, at a recent hearing in Brattleboro, when asked a direct question about how the pool of spent fuel rods, suspended six stories above the ground protected by sheet metal, should be expected to withstand a direct hit of an F4 tornado like the one that recently devastated brick and stone buildings in nearby Springfield MA, NRC representatives responded only by saying that it has been designed to withstand natural disasters, including the fuel pool. And when a chorus of exasperated voices demanded to know how, they were answered with a shrug. Considering that there is more highly radioactive spent fuel at VY than there is at all of the Fukishima reactors put together, this is unsettling at the very least.
Then consider the chief resident inspector at VY, Dave Bingard. He came to the NRC directly from working for Entergy at the Fitzpatrick reactor in New York. Within three years, he became the inspector of the reactor operated by his former employer. This doesn't mean that he will nefariously work in Entergy's favor. But in order to question or criticize any of Entergy's practices, he would have to reject the very procedures and policies that he himself had been a part of during his Entergy years. The revolving door culture that is destroying the efficacy of our Congress, does no better to instill confidence in regulators of the safety of our nuclear reactors.
Then we can consider the statements and actions of the NRC. When VY license renewal was approved by the NRC, chairman Gregory Jazco explicitly stated that this did not preclude Vermont from the process, and that NRC approval was just one step for Entergy. This was echoed at the Brattleboro hearing by the NRC regional commissioner as well, where he stated that Vermont's actions "don't involve any of our authorities or responsibilities". However, according to Bernie Sanders, the NRC proceeded to meet with Entergy lawyers, then voted to ask the Justice department to intervene in the court case on Entergy's behalf. The NRC, illuminating the Obama administration's commitment to open government and transparency, refused to answer the Senator's charge. Why are they willing to act in secrecy and take their lumps from the public? One might posit that if they revealed their actions, we would be even more outraged. Unfortunately, we cannot really know. And this is precisely why, until they change their procedures and accountability, we have no choice but to question validity of NRC rulings about safety. They have worked hand in glove with the nuclear industry for decades while we will have to live with the aftermath of their mistakes. While we cannot pretend to answer these safety questions for ourselves, it would be the height of irresponsibility if we were to trust the NRC implicitly.
We need only remember George W. Bush's claim that no one expected the levees in New Orleans to fail during hurricane Katrina to realize the consequences of complacency.When all we hear are unsubstantiated statements telling us not to worry, its time to start worrying.