Fukushima Shows Us What Can Happen

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Vermont Yankee (VY), a nuclear power plant 10.1 miles from where I live, is of the same age and make as those in trouble in Fukushima, Japan. There is a special bond these days that people who live within range of VY — in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as Vermont — feel toward our brothers and sisters within range of the six reactors at the Fukushima Dai’ichi site. Those reactors were, no doubt, damaged by the gigantic earthquake and geenormous tsunami that followed. But the damage that will last the longest is that caused by the failure of four of those six plants. And that damage was caused more by the plant’s design and the fact that it depended on off-site electricity in the event of a catastrophic shutdown, than it was by the two natural disasters that preceded the plants’ failure.

And so, while we grieve with our Japanese siblings, we are also having to come to terms with the fact that if VY needed external electric power and that power was not available, the atomic devastation here could be even greater than that in Japan.

On Sunday some 600 people from all three potentially-affected states gathered at Vermont Yankee for an hour-long vigil. People carried all kinds of anti-nuke signs, but my favorite signs — and there were many — said, “We are all Japanese.” The vigilers lined up on the sidewalk that goes past the Vermont Yankee property. When you stood at the beginning of the line, where the police were keeping each other company, you couldn’t see the end.

I went as a peacekeeper. When the organizers of a rally or vigil ask our peacekeepers group (we’re all trained in and committed to nonviolence in speech as well as action) we go and put on our identifying armbands (torn from sheets and lettered with the title of our function) and we don’t know what to expect when we get there. Neither, of course, do the police who are assigned to be there. The leaders of the peacekeeping group talk with the police and try to keep things friendly, but not too friendly.  Sometimes the police want us to direct traffic and do crowd control. We’re not equipped for that.  What we’re equipped for is defusing tense situations. Sometimes someone in the crowd gets riled up. Sometimes someone, or, more often, a few someones, try to get people riled up.  Sometimes they succeed and it’s our job to head off a skirmish that could end up with people hurt, emphasis in the media on the few who were arrested, and the total loss of the message folks came to the site to deliver.

The people who come to an event like this hoping to express their beliefs and persuade others, like to see peacekeepers on the job. It’s often easy to spot those who came with the intention of causing trouble; you smile at them and they give you a blank look or glare and then look away.You make a mental picture of such a person and keep watch. If you’re really concerned and there are enough peacekeepers, you tell someone else about the person and the two of you take turns being vigilant, but less obvious about it.

None of this was necessary at Sunday’s vigil. I have never been with a sweeter bunch of people. The police never left the entrance to the driveway that leads to the plant itself. The hardest thing I had to do was tell people preparing to sit on blankets on the winter-dead lawn abutting the sidewalk that they needed to know the lawn was the property of Entergy, the company that owns VY, and that Entergy had said they’d charge anyone who got off the sidewalk with trespassing. Most got onto the sidewalk immediately. I didn’t consider it my business to persuade anyone to move, only to inform them.

I did persuade one young man not to engage in civil disobedience that day. At other times people have crossed the lawn and handcuffed themselves to the chain link fence that surrounds the plant. Not long ago some friends of mine, in their 70s, 80s, and one who was 90 did that and spent a few hours in jail. But when you do CD, you first do a lot of mental and practical preparation. You let the police know it’s going to happen, partly to help them stay calm and not overreact. It’s a kind of ballet: you do something, the head of the police contingent uses a some form of amplification to tell you what will happen if you don’t stop. You don’t stop, you get warned once or twice more, and then out come the rest of the police, one for each person doing the civil disobedience, cable ties in hand to use as handcuffs. You get marched off to various police cars and vans. Peacekeepers accompany you as far as they’re allowed to go, a silent reminder to the police (which may or may not be necessary) that respect and nonviolence are expected, and that the people they’re arresting are not alone.

The last two times I’ve been at a protest/vigil there has been no hint of difficulty. I’m thinking folks are learning from the people in Tunisia and Egypt. I think it would much harder now for a provocateur to start trouble. I’m hoping I’m right.

Back to the nukes: the reactor that Vermont Yankee and Fukushima Dai’ichi and a hundred other communities, many in the U.S., have in common is the General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor. GE sold a bunch of them on the main selling point that they were cheaper than others. They have a place on the roof where operators can store “spent” fuel rods — spent because they’re not strong enough for generating power anymore, but not because they aren’t hot as hell and twice as dangerous.  These fuel rods have to be kept in water that has to be cooled by circulating pumps. If the plant fails or is shut down for maintenance or repairs, electricity still has to power the circulating pumps.  The Mark 1 depends on pumps located elsewhere; it doesn’t have auxiliary backup power of its own.

That’s the main thing that’s wrong at Fukushima.  Not damage from earthquake or tsunami, but from the fact that electricity in other parts of the earthquake area failed and there wasn’t (maybe isn’t — I haven’t heard the news today) power to run the cooling pumps.

What’s got our attention here is this: There are six reactors at Fukushima, each with between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has only one reactor, but a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods are stored on site. Both places have nuclear damage capacity orders of magnitude greater than what we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And none of this is news either to the US Department of Energy or Japan’s energy ministry.  Both agencies knew about this flaw, among others, when they approved construction of the plants.  Both have been warned repeatedly in the almost-forty years they’ve been in use.

Vermont Yankee’s operating permit is due to expire on March 21, 2012, exactly one year from the day I’m writing this.  Entergy, which is not famous for its diligence in maintaining VY (radioactive leaks have been found repeatedly in the ground surrounding this plant, which sits on the edge of the Connecticut River, which flows through Massachusetts and Connecticut before emptying into the ocean) has been lobbying hard to get a permit to run another 20 years.  The US Nuclear Regulatory (that’s a joke, son) Commission  granted the extension today. Fortunately, in 2003 a bunch of really smart and resourceful Vermonters got their legislature to enact a law making it the state government’s decision whether to grant the extension. The decision has been made; there will be no renewal.

Of course, in this country anyone can sue anyone for anything. If Entergy sued Vermont for refusing to let it continue running VY, the case would surely wind up before the Supreme Court. And I’m not at all sure that the court that decided Bush v Gore in 2000 and Citizens United in 2010 would remember how highly it values states rights.

But that’s all in the future. Meanwhile, what I winder about is this: If the US government believes that radiation drops at the 10-mile point from the source of a reactor blast (as it must, since no one beyond 10 miles is promised any kind of protection at all), why did they tell US citizens 50 miles away from Fukushima to evacuate?  Fifty miles from VY covers all of Western Massachusetts and into Connecticut. Why are Americans at home considered safer than Americans in Japan?

Related links:

US Nuclear Power Plants Ranked by Vulnerability

Interactive Map of US GE Mark 1 Power Plants

Fukushima’s Spent Fuel Rods Pose Grave Danger

Vermont Yankee Gets Federal License Renewal

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