August 27, 2007
A cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant has collapsed.
A broken 54" pipe there has spewed 350,000 gallons per minute of contaminated, overheated water into the Earth. "The river water piping and the series of screens and supports failed," said a company spokesman. They "fell to the ground."
The public and media were barred from viewing the wreckage for three days. But when a Congressional Energy Bill conference committee takes up Senate-approved loan guarantees for building new nukes this fall, what will reactor backers say about this latest pile of radioactive rubble?
Vermont Yankee has been in operation---more or less---since the early 1970s. Its owner is Entergy, a multi-reactor "McNuke" operator that last year got approval to up VY's output by 20%.
Required inspections revealed worrisome cracks and other structural problems. Entergy dismissed all that, but was forced to issue a "ratepayer protection policy" against incidents caused by the power increase. The guarantee expired earlier this month, not long before the collapse.
The reactor's output has now been slashed 50%. A public battle is raging over whether it can dump water even hotter than usual into the Connecticut River. Reactors in Alabama, France and elsewhere have been forced shut because the rivers that cool them have exceeded 90 degrees.
Yankee's cooling system, vintage 1972, centers on 22 (now 21) wood, fiberglass and metal towers that stretch for 300 feet, and are 50 feet high and 40 feet wide. The company calls this giant rig a "rain forest."
Operators admit to hearing "strange sounds" coming from its fans last week, but say Tuesday's collapse was unexpected.
Nuclear opponents who warned about such an event have been scorned by Entergy and its supporters. That something as apparently absurd as the spontaneous collapse of an entire cooling tower could actually occur underlines America's Keystone Kops reality of atomic operation and regulation. "We need to understand what happened," explains the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Diane Screnci.
So does Congress. A definitive Conference Committee battle will be fought after Labor Day over an Energy Bill that includes taxpayer guarantees for $50 billion and more to build new nukes.
Meanwhile Vermonters will pay for this latest pile of radioactive reactor rubble. Maybe a "fall foliage" field trip to the Green Mountain State would do the Congress some good.
Harvey Wasserman's SOLARTOPIA: OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030, is available at www.solartopia.org. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, and senior editor of Freepress.org, where this article first appeared.