Who's minding the plant?


Saturday, September 1
On Wednesday, David O'Brien, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, toured the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

O'Brien, who went on a four-hour tour with the state's new nuclear engineer, Uldis Vanags, said afterward that last week's collapse of a cooling tower was just an isolated problem and that Vermont Yankee would be up and running at full power in a matter of days.

On Thursday, Vermont Yankee went into a emergency shutdown due to a problem with a faulty steam valve.

"The timing couldn't be much worse," O'Brien said Thursday.

Do you think?

Entergy and the Department of Public Service certainly look foolish right now, and their claims that all is well at Vermont Yankee ring more hollow with every new mishap at the plant.

The list of mishaps -- lost fuel rods, transformer fires, blown pump seals, electrical problems -- is long. And, they seem to be coming more frequently since Entergy got approval to increase Vermont Yankee's power output by 20 percent.

While O'Brien insists that what he called the "nuclear side of the plant" remains safe, he also put the onus on Entergy to assure the public that Vermont Yankee is still a safe and reliable source of energy.

Good luck with that.

The reality is that while Entergy wants to run an aging nuclear reactor at 120 percent of its generating capacity until at least 2032, Vermont Yankee is slowly but surely falling apart.

Incidents like last week's cooling tower collapse do not increase public confidence in Vermont Yankee. Neither do emergency shutdowns. While the public was not in any danger in either mishap, who's to say that we won't be as lucky the next time?

We think it is time for Vermont to stop pretending that Vermont Yankee will continue to function indefinitely. The state needs to get serious about coming up with a replacement source for the one-third of Vermont's electricity which the nuclear plant now provides.

Up to now, it hasn't.

The Douglas administration, the Department of Public Service and the Legislature have all taken for granted that there will be a nuclear plant in Vernon. They fully expect the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to extend Vermont Yankee's license past 2012, when its current 40-year license expires. They seem to see no reason to worry.

It's time for them to start worrying.

Even though the NRC functions as a rubber stamp for the nuclear industry, it has a limit to how many mishaps can happen at a nuclear plant before it has to be shut down. The events of the past two weeks certainly aren't helping Entergy's case.

We believe the Douglas administration and the Legislature need to come up with a contingency plan for how Vermont will get the electric power it needs if Vermont Yankee is no longer operating.

The state needs to get serious about energy conservation programs, and fully fund them. It needs to get serious about wind, hydro, solar and biomass energy, and expedite development of alternative power sources.

The state needs to think about how Vermont Yankee can be safely shut down, and provide the necessary resources for the town of Vernon and the workers of Vermont Yankee to make the transition once the plant closes.

O'Brien said Wednesday after his Vermont Yankee tour that he did not "see a reason for pushing the panic button here."

He may want to rethink that statement today.

While we don't think there is a reason to panic, we do think that the time to start planning for a post-Vermont Yankee energy future is now. It should be the state's No. 1 priority.


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