Meredith Angwin addresses 3 issues, presenting only half the story on each:
1) Plant aging. First, just for the record since no one else seems to remember, VY’s original license was issued to expire in 2007. The 40 -year license period originally began with the granting of a construction license in 1967. Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, NRC decided to grant license “recaptures” to all existing plants. This extended their licenses from the beginning of the construction license to the beginning of the operating license. That’s how we got the current end of the “original” license period next week.
Second, nuclear aging issues — in which I have no expertise whatsoever — arise in nuclear plants because of the constant bombardment of steel (and other materials) with fission by-products, something which doesn’t happen in coal plants. One of the results, which actually led to the shut down of the Rowe plant, is embrittlement of metal. The issue is a serious one, and is undergoing serious study by experts in the field. VY has shown various signs of cracking and embrittlement in the last decade, which remain under review both by plant management and the NRC. This is a real issue, not one to be minimized.
2) All nuclear plants are quite robust, but that alone does not prove that they are immune from catastrophic accidents. Fukushima was designed for what were believed to be the maximum credible earthquake and the maximum credible tsunami. Unfortunately, nature exceeded the engineers’ definitions of what is credible in both instances.
In simplest terms, what happened at Fukushima was a loss of power accident. While VY is built just as Fukushima was with redundant backup sources of power, they COULD all fail in Vernon, just as they did in Fukushima. The engineers at Fukushima would have declared that impossible the day before the accident; VY engineers will no doubt do so now. At Fukushima, we learned the hard way that the engineers were wrong.
The fundamental problem with nuclear power is that it is impossible for even the best engineers working with the best motivations possible to accurately foresee and then forestall all possible eventualities, yet failure is simply intolerable. To put it much more simply, nuclear power is as subject to Murphy’s law as any other technology or machine.
3) Long-lived nuclear isotopes are indeed less active than shorter lived ones, as Angwin asserts, but in terms of the nuclear waste issue, that’s simply a red herring. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,400 years, which, following the usual rule of thumb, means that it will decay to relatively safe levels in roughly 244,000 years. There is no question that even incredibly small quantities represent a health threat to humans and other life forms, nor any question that it is one of the components of VY’s spent fuel. Since known human history spans only about 10,000 years, I’d say we have a significant problem on our hands, that should not be belittled by diverting appeals to irrelevant nuclear factoids. Right now, we’re storing the waste in containers designed to last a century or two, so we’re roughly a quarter of a million years short of our goal. No one should make light of the problem, and after more than 1/2 century of trying, no one has solved it anywhere in the world.
Originally posted at: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/comments/article/20120318/GREEN01/203180312/Meredith-Joan-Angwin-All-Vermont-wins-when-Vermont-Yankee-operates