Thursday, April 5, 2012

Vermont Yankee is Not Fukushima

Vermont Yankee is not Fukushima

On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Schools collapsed, villages were swept out to sea, and an estimated 20,000 people died.

Five nuclear stations containing fifteen reactors were affected by the tsunami. All the reactors survived the earthquake, but transmission lines failed and diesel generators were flooded. At one site, three reactors lost power for too long, resulting in fuel damage, hydrogen explosions and radiation release. In accordance with emergency plans, population evacuations began almost immediately.

Japan is an industrial powerhouse and technically astute country. The question arises: Could it happen here? Specifically, could this happen at Vermont Yankee, a sister reactor to those in Fukushima?

Vermont Yankee Safeguards

Worldwide, plants have operated through hurricanes, floods and tornados, as well as earthquakes. Shortly after Fukushima, a prominent anti-nuclear activist worried that a meltdown could happen to Vermont Yankee if a big hurricane came to the Connecticut River Valley. A few months later, Hurricane Irene arrived. During the storm, roads washed away and neighboring towns were flooded. Vermont Yankee still made power at full capacity. Nuclear plants are among the sturdiest structures on the planet. Vermont Yankee is designed for a 500-year-flood, 360 mph tornado winds, and severe earthquakes.

To operate safely, a nuclear plant needs adequate cooling water and electricity. Vermont Yankee draws water from Vernon Pond and also stores millions of gallons on-site. It has several types of electrical backup. Its diesel generators are above the 500-year-flood level. The plant also has a direct power line to Vernon Dam. River water can be pumped directly into the reactor, if necessary. Vermont Yankee is well-engineered for its location.

Vermont Yankee is a Mark 1-Reactor, a design that has worked well in floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons worldwide. Its reliability is well-tested.

What if it did happen here?

No matter how low the chances of an accident, people wonder what would happen if it DID happen here. In Japan, three reactors failed, but no workers died of direct radiation exposure (unlike Chernobyl). About fifty workers sustained exposures that may increase their risk of eventual cancer by 5% or less. There were no civilian deaths from direct radiation. Civilian radiation exposures are far below the level (100 millisieverts a year) at which epidemiologists can detect measurable increases in eventual cancer. Still, the radiation in the area is higher than before the accident, and a twelve-mile radius has been evacuated. Anxiety and fear have been major effects of the accident.

The facts are clear - there have been no radiation-related deaths to date from the accident at Fukushima, and few (if any) excess cancer deaths can be expected among civilians. Other sources of electricity cause far more illness and death. In America, 50% of our electricity comes from coal. According to the EPA, 32,000 Americans die annually due to pollution from coal plants. When politicians say “We can close Vermont Yankee because there is plenty of excess power available on the grid,” they mean "The fossil plants upwind of us will run more.”

The anniversary of Fukushima will bring outcries, demonstrations, and imaginative scenarios of nuclear doom. But for asthmatics and their families, doom is upwind of us, right now. It’s fossil-fired.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I wrote this op-ed and submitted it to several local papers. It was printed in the Keene Sentinel, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, and others.

Photo of Fukushima tsunami waves from The Telegraph


Kit P said...


A couple of corrections to your post.

“radiation release ”

Radioactive material was released. This distinction is important because exposure was very small because people were evacuated before the release.

“5% or less ”

How about 0.5% of less. In any case it is a made up number. The risk is so small that it is below our ability to detect it.

“According to the EPA, 32,000 Americans die annually due to pollution from coal plants. ”

The EPA does not say that.

The EPA says some misleading thing. Let me help you understand what is true. The US has very good air quality. Very rarely will you see unhealthy levels even for people at risk. The data used in very questionable studies is based on 30 year data and that air quality does not exists anymore.

If you poor air quality, first check to see where the forest fire is before going blaming it on a coal plant in China [\sarcasm].

Meredith you of all people should know that association is not causation. People get old. We then get chronic diseases. Then we die. There may have been a coal plant someplace or they may have been exposed to plutonium. However, it is a sure bet that significant contributing to poor health is the number of years a person has lived and the number of packs of cigarettes smoked.

VY is a valuable asset but not because there is a problem with making power with fossil fuel.

On health issue related to energy that may exist in Vermont is heating with wood. I used to heat with wood but indoor air quality that results is worse than LA before pollution controls were put on cars.

In case you did not know it poor air quality in cities was mostly cause by heating and cooking in homes with coal. Power plants are usually not a big contributor.

So Meredith you need to read lots of studies closely before basing fossil fuel use in the power industry. The anti-nuke and anti-coal crowd all rely on junk science.

Meredith Angwin said...


Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

Indeed, as you say, the worst air pollution comes from distributed sources (cars, homeowners burning coal or wood), not from power plants. Indoor air pollution can be a major problem, especially as insulating buildings often means decreasing air exchanges to the building.

Still with all of that in mind, too many people think that closing down nuclear plants will simply mean adding a few solar panels somewhere. In general, however, closing a nuclear plant will mean running a fossil plant. In my opinion, and in many studies comparing deaths-per-terrawatt and so forth, nuclear is the healthier option than fossil. I feel okay about pointing this out.

Kit P said...

I agree Meredith that nuclear power is a good way to make power. It needs not silly justifications related to fossil fuel.

I am a problem solver. One problem I was tasked with was reducing the airborne levels in the Auxiliary. After fixing all the leaking valves, I changed how I addressed the problem. I would check my air monitors to see if there was a problem before starting looking for leaks. I did not consult any 'studies' or models.

I have looked closely at all the studies. In the US, I can not find air pollution that would cause a health concern let alone caused by making power. I can not find any children with elevated levels of mercury let alone caused by coal.

I do find lots of carefully crafted lies about coal just as I do about nukes. I am an engineer, there are not problems that I can solve with a nuke plant other than ensuring However, Meredith you said that 32,000 are killed by coal-based power. That is very serious gossip disrespecting a lot of hard working people. As a nuclear professional I have a lot of respect for improvements that part of the industry have made just as I am proud of the improvements we have made in the nuke industry.

Meredith Angwin said...


I have not studied the matter as closely as you have, so I can't respond to how good the EPA numbers are. Please note, however, that I diduse EPA numbers: I didn't go to some site called "death to coal" or something to find the worst numbers I could find. Back in the day when I worked as a contractor to EPA on NOx pollution control methods, the EPA methodologies seemed well thought out and credible. That was quite a few years ago, I admit, but I do tend to believe the EPA numbers, unless I have good data to refute them In other words, I quoted EPA, and I did not mean to disrespect anybody by doing so.

People work very hard to make coal safer and cleaner. As a matter of fact, one of my problems is that I have never met a heat-engine power plant that I didn't like! I like all reliable sources for making electricity! And I was one of those people making fossil better, for quite a few years, though my expertise was in NOx, not particulate. You are correct that the coal industry has made great strides and the plants are much cleaner now.

Kit, honestly...if quoting an EPA study is "spreading serious gossip" I simply don't know how to answer that. I had a point to make, that nuclear is the safest form of power. The EPA study agreed with this, and the study didn't look like anti-fossil gossip to me. Maybe it was gossip, but someone would have to prove that to me. I have great respect for everyone who improves methods for operating, or operates, a power plant of any kind.

Would you like to do a guest blog post on the problems with the EPA coal study? I would welcome that and print it.

Robert said...

Only read this blog a few times but now I have a question: On the GE Mark 1 (and 2) the top 1/3 of the reactor building looks like not much more than a high school gym. How can it possibly not be damaged by a 300 mph wind? In fact, at Fukushima that seems to be the part that blew up, although I notice on the 4th one, some of the concrete below the 1/3 is gone too. Is there anything "up there" that would cause the plant to be unsafe? I have also heard that at Fukushima, the 2nd one that still has the top building, that the "Jeanne bottle" inside, the radiation is so high that it would kill anyone in 5 minutes so it and VY must have a very thick door. Do you think any utilities will buy a GE boiling water reactor anymore?

Kit P said...

“I quoted EPA ”

No, you misquoted EPA. Go back and read carefully. They talk about air pollution without clearly being specific about the contribution of each source. Checking your facts carefully and carefully accurately representing them is not gossip. Being skeptical if things that would appear to be blatantly false will help. However, gossip is what this is.

The reason I stopped being anti-coal was an EPRI study. I was taking a graduate level course in environmental engineering and had to give a presentation of the methodology were were learning. Since 75% of the students were in the nuclear industry (Richland Washington), I thought bashing coal would go over well. However, the EPRI study found that the 'Hazard Index' for all coal plants in the US was less than one.

Subsequent to that I started reading carefully. Without fail I found carefully crafted lies.

I would be happy to 'the EPA coal study' as an environment engineer. Please provide me a link to 'the' study. No carefully crafted lies (aka, BS) written by Clinton EPA lawyers rehired by the present POTUS. Find me something of the same quality that EPRI would produce and you would sign.

Robert writes,

“How can it possibly not be damaged by a 300 mph wind?”

What would happen to your house in a 300 mph wind?

If every body is head because of an unthinkable natural disaster, then who would be left to worry about radiation?

When I worked for GE I was SRO certified and worked at plants with all three containment designs. I have also been responsible for spent fuel pools at PWR. Spent fuel pools are designed to withstand earthquakes. None have ever fail. To be safe they only must keep the fuel covered with water.

The industrial grade build over the spent fuel pools on GE reactor are not designed to withstand tornadoes or hurricanes. Some have been damaged. Even with at Fukushima, no spent fuel has been damaged.

'it would kill anyone in 5 minutes'

Spent fuel needs 7 feet of water for shielding when moving fuel out of the core. If water was being lost from the fuel poor, the refueling floor would be evacuated.

The reason there was core damage at Fukushima was that a 45 foot wall of salt damaged electrical equipment which was not part of the GE design. The purpose of the containment structure is to keep people from being hurt by radiation. No one was hurt by radiation.

US BWRs and PWRs are designed to prevent people from being hurt in case there is an accident or some other unthinkable thing happens.

Meredith Angwin said...


Here is what I was referring to

I will accept that I should perhaps have said "13K to 30K" deaths, but in that case, I would have also added something about asthma attacks. I also note that EPA is mostly concerned with SOx in this study, not NOx, so we are looking at coal plants, not vehicles.

As I said before, if you are willing to write a blog post about their study, that would be great. This link does NOT look like carefully-crafted lies to me, but I would like to see your analysis. I am not being sarcastic or confrontational. You have looked into this more than I have, please share your knowledge. Write a guest post!

I did work, many years ago, on aged photochemical smog (NOx/Ozone). The older the smog got, the worse it got for people's health. My company had a big EPA NOx contract, and I wrote a monthly update for management on NOx smog papers. The company mostly worked on combustion control of NOx, not smog issues, but managers wanted this little "consequences" update, so I did it every month. Therefore, I take cross-state pollution seriously and was inclined to believe these EPA findings.

Thank you for answering Robert. The "lethal levels" within containment are pretty much the way containment is supposed to work. However, anti-nuclear people will attack containment for working (lethal levels inside!) or not working (radiation release!) Oh well. I would add, for Robert's sake, that the walls are indeed thick enough to contain radiation and that people are working outside in the complex, dealing with wastewater, etc.

Kit P said...

You linked a web site not a study. Thanks you for the 100% BS from lying lawyers. So dig into the references and find me the study that is the basis of your opinion. I will be happy to read and critique it.

“This link does NOT look like carefully-crafted lies to me, ”

Of course a good lie is not obvious. Tune up your BS meter by starting with what you know to be true. Asthma was mentioned.

“400,000 aggravated asthma attacks”

Really, what is an aggravates asthma attack and why are they increasing as air quality gets better? There does seem to be a lot of aggravates asthma attacks in places like California where there are not coal plants.

Here are some other thing to look for:

“mostly concerned with SOx in this study, not NOx, so we are looking at coal plants, not vehicles. ”

Really! How about diesel fuel and fuel oil for home heating?

A systematic approach to health issues would start with identifying the source and fixing it. Of course we started removing sulfur from diesel fuel What you will find, if you find the study, is old data. Have you compared air quality today today?

So yes, 40 years ago in the US and many places in the world now have air quality that was not healthy.

Air pollution is like radiation. Clearly exposure to high levels of either are harmful but the evidence that low levels is so weak that it borders on pure fiction. If you take a very weak association and multiply it by everyone in the US you get nonsense like:

“13,000 to 34,000 premature deaths ”

What is 'premature deaths'? The studies do not define that. Association is not causation. While on vacation last year, there was a 'heat advisory' so I decided to head for a nice hotel. Before we got there I took my wife to the emergency room. She spent the night after having two stints put in.

This would be data support anti-coal propaganda. Of course the only coal plant for five hundred miles happened to be off line.

So please find the studies. There is a systematic approach to solving problems. You know what that looks like. Then there is a clever political campaign. If you are not sure Obama is anti-coal rather that pro-environmental, if you wanted to address AGW would you set the standard based on nuke emissions or natural gas?

As far the robust nature of containments and spent fuel pools, I wonder if the chairman of NRC has tempered his statements since he has visited one. The NRC has some strange ideas based on just looking at models on this topic. We have to low levels of exposure do not occur rather than "lethal levels". Spent fuel pool events develop slowly and you can walk away.

I mention earlier that I once had a task of looking for leaks. The commitment to the NRC was for airborne levels of contamination. However, when there was a leak; hydrogen leaked. I mention that because radiation expose allows time to walk away. Hydrogen detonations often result in fatalities. I do not know of any fatalities at nuke plants because of the safety precautions we take. It happens too fast to walk away from.

Truth is based on science. If the best you can do is a very weak association, then there is not much of a problem. Spending billions to fix problems that are below the threshold of detectable harm is more about politics than protecting the environment.

Meredith Angwin said...

Kit. Once again, thank you for your thoughtful comment.

However, in terms of the EPA study, you and I are at a bit of an impasse.

I don't see anything gossipy or wrong about quoting this EPA summary, while you consider it "100% BS" from "lying lawyers" and ask me to dissect the studies behind the summary. You mention many ways the studies (behind the summary) may be wrong, but you don't say anything I can look into and assess. You don't say "this study had this methodology problem." You are asserting that the studies are wrong, while asking me to "find the studies."

Okay. Here goes. This EPA summary looks good to me. You claim that it looks good to me because I haven't read the studies and I can't tell BS when I see it. I claim it is because of my earlier work on aged smog for EPA. Fine. Okay.

Once again, since apparently you HAVE dissected the studies on which this summary is based, please write a guest post discussing the studies and your reasoning. Don't just assert that they are lying and I don't recognize BS. Show your work, in other words.

You have pointed out several things that could have gone wrong in the studies behind the EPA reasoning. You have not proven to my satisfaction that these things DID go wrong. Prove it.
Change of pace. Thanks for the good notes on fuel pools and I am glad your wife had excellent medical care. I assume and hope she is doing great now! Best wishes to both of you.

Gwyneth Cravens said...

The National Academy of Sciences disagrees with your sunny, healthy take on the impacts of fossil fuel combustion:

So does WHO:

And here's just one epidemiological study among dozens:

Deaths per terawatt hour:

We could also talk about the toxic heavy metals in fly ash dumped in unlined slurry pits. The ash gets into the soil, water, and air. Many coal-fired plants are grandfathered in and poorly regulated. Furthermore, the coal industry tends to write its regulations and to lobby Congress generously.

Kit P said...


I have a great deal of respect for the NRC. Their concerns are based on scientific principles and the follow a standard review plan. Communicating with them can be frustrating.

I have a great deal of respect for local EPA types. On a federal level there is a lot of useful information. I will be happy to provide some links to information I trust. When it comes to coal and nuclear issues the EPA is a pack of BS artists who have not interest in protecting the environment.

It was about 15 years ago that I had to give a presentation to a local office a state EPA organization. Looking at the state web site, my power point presentation covered scary concerns like mercury, arsenic, and dioxin. However, the environmental professionals in the room were concerned about boring things like how sediment affected water quality. They liked hearing how an engineered solution could address the root cause of the problem. After the meeting, a federal EPA person corned us in the parking lot. He liked the way we found solutions to problems and suggested a more difficult problem to look at, namely forest health.

My point here is that we still have real environmental issues to deal with but the folks in DC are busy making up lies to focus on real issues.

Anyway, I was active in local and regional environmental issues which for a few years corresponded nicely with the big picture for my company. I was surprised when Washington State issue a statewide warning to pregnant women about eating fish from state waters. What mercury? Two lakes have elevated levels of mercury as a legacy of things like copper smelting in Canada. After reading the study which showed declining levels from the previous study, I concluded there were not enough fish with elevated mercury to even poison one pregnant women assuming only old fish found to be high in mercury were eaten.

The Washington State warning was used over and over to as an indication that coal-based power was causing a serious problem. According to the CDC, zero is the number of women and children that have been found with levels of mercury above a threshold of harm.

Either there are some really stupid people at the EPA or the have some very clever lawyers creating carefully-crafted lies.

The same goes for PM 2.5.

“You have not proven to my satisfaction that these things DID go wrong. Prove it. ”

Meredith you stated an opinion based on reading studies but later admitted not reading the studies only trusting the EPA. I voted for Carter once. I have no problem with being wrong when I have more information but you are asking me to prove a negative.

Two final points. I am a trained and experienced environmental engineer. It would be very difficult to find any at the NRC or EPA that have better qualification. I have actually read many of the reports but this dose not mean I have not missed something. My job is not making accurate statements about the environmental effects of coal but making accurate statements about nuke plants. I know when people are lying about nuke plants and I know when people are lying about coal plants.

A second approach when I am challenged is to try to prove the others point. Starting from the web site you linked, no references could be found to studies. So I went looking:

“U.S. EPA. Integrated Science Assessment (ISA) for Sulfur Oxides – Health Criteria (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-08/047F, 2008.”

However, I was unable to download it. I will try later if you are interested in continuing.

Data found here supports my position that air quality has improved substantially and there is no longer a problem.

Howard Shaffer said...

In the Mark I containment the top floor of the reactor building-the refueling floor-does not contain any safety-related equipment. The top edge fuel pool is level with the floor. The water level is a foot or so below the floor. The use fuel is about thirty feet down. The fuel is lifted up under water in a vertical position for handling, in and out of the reactor. There must be enough water above a fuel assembly when it is lifted to provide the needed shielding.

So the fuel in the racks is way down below the top floor. It is protected by the thick concrete walls around the pool. These are not the outside walls of the buildings. There are large spaces between the walls of the pools and the outside walls, housing various systems that are related to safety.
Below the top floor the outside wall are thick reinforced concrete to withstand the design basis hurricanes, tornadoes etc.

At Vermont Yankee the walls around the op floor are made of steel panels with retaining wires, designed to pop loose in a tornado, to relieve pressure in the building.

Kit P said...

Gwyneth Cravens

As a journalists have you ever sat in a classroom taking hard course about protecting the environment?

“So does WHO”

Actually when you get done to details WHO agrees with Kit about the US where air quality is very good.

“Indoor air pollution is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths mostly in developing countries. Almost half of these deaths are due to pneumonia in children under 5 years of age. ”

Many places in the world still have problems. The biggest is cause by cooking with cow patties in hovels. Central generating stations with pollutions controls improve the quality of life.

“And here's just one epidemiological study among dozens:”

Oh please did you even bother to read it?

“The most convincing evidence for an effect of PM on lung growth is from a longitudinal study performed in Southern California, where the majority of ambient PM is derived from fossil fuels. ”

No coal plants there, Gwyneth. The fossil fuel is burn in ICE for transportation. They got too many cars stuck on the freeway.

Studies like this is why I stopped heating with wood. Home heating and with coal is another big problem.

“exposure to indoor coal smoke ”

This is the the only place that coal is mentioned in “Particulate Matter Exposure in Children”. This study might be a good study to critique if Meredith concurs

Meredith Angwin said...

Kit, Gwyneth and Howard

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! Today I have a LOT of meetings and will not be at my computer much, but I plan to respond as soon as I can. Once again, thank you all. I didn't want to just disappear for a day and not acknowledge these serious notes.

This is one of the most helpful and substantive comment streams in my memory of blogging.


Meredith Angwin said...

I wasn't at my computer very much yesterday either. I meant to do this yesterday. Getting back to this comment stream was my first priority.

Kit. I considered the EPA website to be a "study" in the sense of a review paper. Digging deeper, I have noted that the links are to spreadsheets and models, not to original studies. You are correct there. On the other hand, some of the worst air quality in their models in in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That effect is undoubtedly caused by coal. It's not vehicular photochemical smog (not enough nice sunshine, as in L A) and not home heating. Those states have gas pipelines and home heating would be a mixture of nat gas and oil. Vermont has only one region with a gas pipeline, and many homes heat with oil, so if oil heating was the problem, Vermont should be worse than PA.

You will probaby say that those numbers for high-mortality states are not correct, so saying the numbers are caused by coal is not relevant So, we are down to brass tacks here.

Please choose a study which lists coal-based mortality in the past five years (or projected into the future) and debunk it. You know the literature on this, I trust the EPA site, and you do not. However, "trust it" vs. "Don't trust it" is too school-yardy for me. I would like to see a guest post from you and that would be great.

Please keep the post to 1200 words or less, and send any diagrams and so forth with it. Send it all to mjangwin at Can you do this? If not, just email me and we will email about what you would like to do....

I am also thinking of extracting some of this comment stream into a blog post, because it is a very important subject.

Kit P said...


We have a problem here since I do not have your crystal ball. You keep making statements which appear to have not basis in fact.

“On the other hand, some of the worst air quality in their models in Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

Air quality is good in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I just checked (

“Please choose a study which lists coal-based mortality in the past five years (or projected into the future) and debunk it.”

There are none. Since I can not find any, you will have to provide one. The reason there are not is because we do not have an air quality problems in the US that results in any mortality. I have read interesting studies about poor air quality in China. It is sad that China did not enact a CAA in the early 70s like the US did.

My overarching position is that we should celebrate our environmental success in cleaning up our air rather than chase after diminishing returns. The US still has lots of environment issues that need those resources. Yes, we should build nuke plants and keep the ones we have running because it is a good way to make electricity.

Meredith Angwin said...


I said the worst air quality in their models. If you look at their website, you can see a map of the eastern the site I linked to, they have a map, and in that map, which deaths from air pollution were the highest (darkest color) in Ohio and PA . If you go to the link I set, please look at the map of the eastern states.

Perhaps you would just like to do a blog post about air quality? I am not using a "crystal ball" to set you up to doing something impossible.

Let me know if you would like to write an air-quality related topic for a guest post.

Robert said...

How can you or anyone can say VY is not like Fukushima when it is the same type (Mark1) and brand (General Electric)? Its kind of like saying a GE and a Hotpoint range are different (both made by GE). In fact, probably the only thing different is the color scheme with Fukushima blue/white and VY green/white. One concern is what will happen to Building 4 at Fukushima with all those used fuel rods. There is concern that the building could tip, releasing all the rods and the radiation. Who decided to make VY a GE when there were other makes that do not have the spent fuel pool that high up? Somehow they (Tepco) will have to figure out how to get the fuel out of the building and into dry storage containers. By the way does VY have containers? It might help to get some of the fuel out of the building so there will not be so much.