Thursday, February 17, 2011

Communicating About Vermont Yankee at the Rotary

Rotary and Vermont Yankee

Recently, I have had many speaking engagements about Vermont Yankee. Several of them have been at Rotary Clubs. I didn't know very much about Rotary when I started, but I am now very impressed with their charitable work and good fellowship. I am particularly impressed with Rotary's multi-year effort to eradicate polio.

On a more local note, I was impressed with the number of Rotary Club invitations I received after I was listed on an internal website for clubs!

William Secord of the Lebanon-Riverside Rotary Club wrote up my talk in the club newsletter last week. I am grateful that he allowed me to share his article on my blog.

Meredith Angwin originally arrived at her interest in nuclear energy by first getting involved in researching geothermal and other renewable energies. She then came to realize the limitations of these alternative energy sources: Germany and Denmark, for example, even in their big push towards alternative energy, depend upon solar and wind for only twenty percent of their power needs. Meredith saw that our main sources of energy really have to come from large dams, fossil fuels, and/or nuclear facilities. So she focused on nuclear.

Perhaps the first concern of most people regarding nuclear facilities is their safety and, especially in regards to our own Vermont Yankee, the pollution of ground water by radioactive elements such as tritium. From Meredith's perspective, the danger posed by tritium, an isotope of hydrogen, is close to nonexistent. First of all, tritium emits beta radiation, which in itself is very weak, unable even to penetrate a sheet of paper. A person must ingest tritium to really become exposed to its radiation. Even then, the level of radiation that a person would be exposed to in drinking two quarts of water with 20,000 picocuries of tritium would equal only one-twentieth of the tritium radiation contained in one banana. Even the ubiquitous exit signs in public buildings emit five to seven curies (not picocuries) of tritium radiation. Nuclear plants in Canada are allowed 5,000 curies of tritium seepage; Vermont Yankee has a tritium leak level of only two curies. In short, Meredith considers the physical dangers of nuclear energy to be overstated to the point of absurdity.

The second major concern of many people is the economics of nuclear energy. In the case of Vermont Yankee, Vermont's Clean Energy Fund receives two to six million dollars a year from the nuclear facility. A shutdown of the plant would result in a loss of this funding and a payroll loss of sixty to ninety-three million dollars. The domino effect would lead to a loss of one thousand to thirteen hundred jobs. The tax loss would amount to between six and twelve million dollars, plus the loss of Clean Energy Fund monies. In the absence of the reliability of the energy production provided by Vermont Yankee, the cost of electricity per kilowatt hour would increase, greatly depending on the cost of natural gas. Right now, the cost of electricity available on the grid is 4 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Electricity provided by Vermont Yankee costs 4.4 cents per kilowatt; electricity from Hydro-Quebec costs 6.1 cents per kilowatt; electricity coming from renewable resources costs 12 to 13 cents per kilowatt. Increases in the cost of electricity could lead to further job losses among major employers such as General Electric and IBM in Vermont. Two sites on the Web that provide further information on both the safety and economic issues around the Vermont Yankee facility are: and

In response to a question as to why water power has not been classified as a renewable energy resource in discussions relating to Vermont Yankee, Meredith explained the political aspects of energy classifications. If the electricity generated by the big dam at Hydro-Quebec were to be classified as emanating from a renewable resource, then that source would count towards state goals for its renewable energy portfolio; monies that would have gone into areas such as wind turbines would be cut because the state renewable portfolio goals would have already been met.

One member, whose father was instrumental in establishing the original Manchester Electric Cooperative, pointed out that nuclear plants in Canada have been constructed with different parameters, allowing persons to enter them safely only nine hours after one of them has been completely shut down. Meredith pointed out other differences; for instance, Canadian plants use no enriched uranium. They use deuterium, with the result that they have a much higher level of tritium leakage. She also stated that all nuclear plants have some minor problems, even Seabrook, but that political opposition in New Hampshire is not as high as in Vermont.

Another member queried whether Vermont Yankee isn't actually a rather old facility. Meredith responded that of all the nuclear plants built from 1969 through 1979 Vermont Yankee is considered the fourth most reliable out of sixteen sister plants. She stated that nuclear plants don't actually wear out since parts are continually swapped out -- to the tune of four hundred million dollars of rather new equipment presently in place. She noted that some coal plants in operation today are one hundred years old, and even coal energy facilities are subject to corrosion. The National Association of Corrosion Engineers has determined that core pressure vessels in nuclear plants will continue to operate effectively for sixty years and that any radiation impingement of containment vessels can be securely handled.

In general, I was amazed at how accurately Secord reported my talk, and how honest and informed the questions were. There were a few minor errors, of course. Renewable feed-in tariffs are between 12 and 30 cents in Vermont, not 12 and 13 cents. Also, the banana has beta radiation, not tritium radiation.

I am sharing this article because I go to so many meetings where people are shouting and yelling "liar" and so forth. At those meetings, you can't tell a pro-nuclear story and answer questions. It's not possible in those circumstances.

As you can tell from the questions above, this Rotary club wasn't a group of committed pro-nuclear people. However, it was a group of intelligent, civic-minded and open-minded people, and it was a pleasure to talk to them. And considering the list of invitations I currently have, I will be talking to more Rotary Clubs very soon!

Postscript: Rod Adams of Atomic Insights blog also does The Atomic Show podcast. Two days ago, Rod invited me, Margaret Harding, Gwyneth Cravens, and Julie Ezold to be on the podcast of Four Women in Nuclear Energy. This morning, I found that this podcast was Best of the Blogs at Nuclear Townhall

My recent blog about the NRC also made the Best of Blogs list a day or so ago, as did my friend Willem Post's blog about the Dutch move away from wind power toward nuclear. Willem Post and I are members of the local group, Coalition for Energy Solutions.

These recent acknowledgments have been very gratifying.

I thank and acknowledge the Rotary Download Library for the main Rotary International symbol. I captured the Lebanon Riverside Rotary symbol from their website.

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