Vermont Yankee Tour Misses Opportunity for Open Dialogue

Today’s Burlington Free Press “My Turn” section features VPIRG’s President Duane Peterson’s report on his personal experience touring the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant earlier this month.  Below is Duane’s full report.
Vermont Yankee Tour Misses Opportunity for Open Dialogue
I recently toured the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.  The visit was arranged so the Vermont Public Service Board could tour the radiation leak as part of its investigation into Entergy’s false testimony that no pipes existed which could leak tritium.  Also invited were the “intervenors” granted the right to participate in the legal proceedings: the Conservation Law Foundation, Vermont Natural Resources Council, New England Coalition, Windham Regional Commission, and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group whose board I chair.  Among us were nuclear engineers, hydrologists, geologists, environmental law and public policy experts – and two newspaper reporters and a video documentary crew.
As we approached the plant by bus, I was struck by how close it is to the publicly-traveled road.  I’d reviewed maps, but seeing the green walls of the reactor looming a few hundred feet from public traffic was eerie.  Occupied homes abut the plant property and the Vernon Elementary School is across the two-lane road, with the reactor visible from where kids are dropped off each day. Vermont’s nuclear power plant is in a neighborhood.
A Vermont Yankee executive gave us the rules: stick with our assigned guides, stay in our groups, turn in our cameras as no pictures would be allowed and ask no questions because our guides were not experts.  We all were disappointed that we’d be unable to capture in pictures what we’d see, nor have conversations with knowledgeable plant officials.
Walking along the perimeter of the inner fence brought a sharp contrast.  The 19th century technology of wooden trestles holds up the cooling towers, the same beams that failed in that now famous photo.  Then just ahead was a post-modern scene of rolled concertina wire, vehicle traps, sensored fencing, guard towers, bomb-sensing puffer machines and airport metal detectors.  
Once past security, we split into our three small groups.  My group walked outdoors through the industrial facility to the riverside, with the water visible maybe thirty feet through a chain link fence.  We were shown the monitoring wells which disclosed radioactive contamination last December.  The river was just a stone’s throw and down-slope from the reactor – it became clear why state officials determined that leaking radiation had reached into the river.   
We returned back to the complex of buildings under which Entergy officials say the leak came from, the buried pipes which they previously denied existed.  Sandwiched in tight between two buildings, the asphalt was torn up to expose a 30-foot deep trench. A handful of aging lateral pipes was exposed about 8 feet down across the trench, hinting at the web of underground pipes beneath the plant.  It must have been difficult excavating around and beneath those pipes to reach the much deeper one carrying radionclueids, but Entergy says it’s sure that is the only one leaking now and is pumping out the radioactive groundwater.  We literally stepped over the plastic piping that took the tritiated water from the well to a storage tank a hundred feet away. It felt odd to come in such close contact with the radioactive water we’d heard so much about.
We passed through the security building, confirmed that we’d suffered no radiation exposure, returned our hardhats and thanked our hosts for the experience.  The Entergy employees disappeared, leaving us to share perceptions with each other, pour over maps and wrestle with more unanswered questions than we started with. 
So what was gained from our show and not tell at Vermont Yankee? I came away convinced of the importance of interested citizens getting out and seeing for ourselves what we seek to understand and not just accept self-serving assurances from corporate spin-masters.  I witnessed Entergy’s continuing inability to be candid with the public it serves, wasting this golden opportunity to engage its expert critics and show us wrong.  And most importantly, I saw firsthand that this plant, nearing its planned retirement date, is as old and fragile as its recent troubled history suggests.
Duane Peterson lives in Essex and is president of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG).