Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What Fukushima Means for Vermont: Tsunami on the Connecticut?

Are the terrible problems at the Japanese Fukushima plants relevant to continuing to operate Vermont Yankee?

I found myself in the middle of an email fight on this subject. I am answering Vermont Senator McCormack here, the same man who doesn't think we need to have electricity available whenever we feel like using it.

I rarely post when people are busily insulting each other, but I am going to try to make some reasonable statements here.

McCormack's argument is that loss of power and flooding can cause the same problems here as happened in Japan. That is not true. You see, nuclear plants have been running world-wide for about fifty years. They are designed to withstand loss-of-outside-power. All over the world, they have endured ice storms, floods, and hurricanes. Hurricanes generally include loss of outside power and flooding. It has not mattered. The plants did fine. Here's an article from Minnesota that I found in quick googling. It includes how Prairie Island plant withstood major floods in 2001.

Or this Florida article that includes the safe shutdown of Turkey Point during Hurricane Andrew in 1992

Here's a quote from the article about Florida:

Hannah said the fact that the Turkey Point plant withstood Hurricane Andrew in 1992 should re assure Floridians. "Hurricane Andrew was probably as bad a hurricane as can hit U.S. shores. Turkey Point survived that. It was able to shut down safely."

Does Mr. McCormack think we will have a worse hurricane in Vermont than Hurricane Andrew in Florida? Has he noticed that the Vermont Yankee power plant is hundreds of feet above the river? Florida is flat like a can't find a place hundreds of feet above the water.

Politics or Technology?

Mr. McCormack has a political point to make, claiming that the events in Japan were NOT more difficult to deal with than events that could occur on the Connecticut. This is not rational. It is not a matter of being technical or not-technical, it is simply a matter of having some common sense. The combination of infrastructure destruction and flooding from a 9 point earthquake and a 30 foot tsumani just cannot be duplicated here, no matter what type of ice storm or hurricane we have.

In every case of the type of event we might have here, the nuclear plants have been successful in shutting down and starting up again, without incident.


Off point:

Non-technical people can understand technical matters, if they don't have a political agenda that interferes with their understanding of the facts. Insults to the non-technical are not useful.

(This was in response to one person writing that McCormack was non-technical, and so it was hard for him to understand these things. It was not written in a kindly way.)

I worked hard for my masters degree in physical chemistry and to invent patents in pollution control. Saying that pro-nuclear people "should bow their heads in shame" and such people are "(not) scientifically competent" is equally insulting.

This was in response to the following statement from McCormack: The time has come for the pro nuke crowd to bow their heads in shame, to exhibit the judgment to just shut up or, if they must speak, to apologize and admit how thoroughly they've been discredited. But not only are they not showing the appropriate level of humiliation and remorse, they're still talking down to the rest of us, still scolding us for talking out of turn, still pretending we're scientifically ignorant and they're scientifically competent.

Aside: this email exchange went to about 80 people, including legislators and reporters. It was not private.
Link List

For information on the backup capabilities at Vermont Yankee in an emergency, see this article in our local paper.

I will be away from my computer for much of tomorrow, because I have other obligations (amazing but true!) that were set up weeks ago. In the meantime, I recommend the following:

ANS Nuclear Cafe, with links to everything including Japanese TV in English.

Nuclear Energy Institute, which has good summaries. Here is some VERY good news from this source: Restoration of electrical power to the site was under way at the Daiichi plant as of 6:00 a.m. EDT Wednesday. A temporary cable was being connected between an off-site power line and Daiichi reactor 3. Off-site power has not been available at the site since the earthquake on March 11.

A graph of radiation levels around the power plant, from the New York Times, which I hope they will continue to update. These levels are very high, very dangerous. However, I have no equivalent information about levels a mile away or levels in Tokyo, so I can't tell about off-site implications. I began writing a post on this, but gave it up for lack of information.

Update: Another blogger began following radiation levels: The Neutron Economy. He is getting some info from Tokyo. Worth watching this blog.

Image of Turkey Point from the FPL website


rolf.parkerhoughton said...

Of course, if one believes that the only way to loose the cooling system is via a Tsunami, then one need not take the lesson from Fukushima to heart.

One lesson that terrorists will learn from all of this is that all one needs to do to cause a major incident is to knock out the cooling system.


"Nuclear experts said that if they don't get water to these spent fuel pools in view of the containment breaches in the other plants the actual radiation releases could approach that category of Chernobyl," said Victor Gilinsky, who was an NRC commissioner at the time of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, which was the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history."

Anonymous said...

So what happens if a terrorist hit the fuel pool at vermont yankee? Since it is only protected by a tin roof.

Anonymous said...

1. ENVY is not "hundreds" of feet above the river. The dry cask waste storage is about fifty feet above the Connecticut River.

2. The ENVY spent fuel pool has over 700 tons of waste. The burning fuel in Fukushima #4 has less than 200 tons.

Meredith Angwin said...

You are correct about the elevation. The plant is above the 500 year flood level, but not hundreds of feet above the river.

The amount of material in the spent fuel pool and dry casks is not particularly relevant, since they are well handled and well protected. Read this article to inform yourself.

PleasantGuitar said...

Im sorry to say that i agree that it is your turn to hang your head in shsme along with all the pro nuke advocates turning through the revolving door
You say:"Vermont Senator McCormack here, the same man who doesn't think we need to have electricity available whenever we feel like using it."- Dont you have any suspicion that we aren't putting a proper monetary price on nuclear power? Maybe if the price truly reflected the cost, most people wouldn't feel great about paying extra for leaving lights ,TVs on in their homes, business would have to shut down lights at night, and cites would be more conservative with power. Electricity isn't produced for free, whatever is used to create it is a limited,expensive, and potentially dangerous material. What is your counterpoint to the fact that valuable and rare resources should be used for the most important needs of society first?
2. The waste was supposed to go to Yucca Mountain. Now it doesn't have a place to go. Disposing of nuclear waste is an expensive and dangerous ordeal and puts society at grave risk of a terrorist attack. Again, pro nuke industry advocates would like us to put that cost on the USA unlimited credit card, because we are that exceptional.
3. The plant has already been leaking, and the company lied to the public. Personally I put little faith in our regulatory agencies to do the right thing, both the EPA and NRC have failed in their goal to protect Americans.

Your argument that there will never be a tsunami in VT is ridiculous and shows the weakness of your position. Of course there won't be a Tsunami, but is that keeping a human accident from occurring, or radiation to leak from the plant? In your speech you mentioned a 15-30% increase in the cost of energy without it. To me, turning VT in a nuclear waste zone isn't worth those savings.

Anonymous said...

Do we have any idea what would happen at VY if, heaven forbid, terrorists flew an airliner into the top of the VY plant where the fuel rods are held in the pool 70 feet up in the air? Isn't this plant vulnerable to an attack such as the one we saw on 9-11?

rolf.parkerhoughton said...

Hello Meredith,

First, thanks for posting my comments.

The link made no mention of terrorist attack on the fuel pool.

Please read,

The article you linked to also ignores the inherent design flaws, noted by experts working in the industry, of the Mark 1 in the event of loss of cooling from any combination of events.

It is important to remember that the earthquake and Tsunami did zero direct damage to containment. The loss of containment was caused days later by the loss of cooling ability, despite the endless gallons of water that were available.

Martin Langeveld said...

Meredith, you continue to put your faith in technology, competent operators and management, and the accuracy of the worst-case scenarios designed into VY. No doubt you know more than I do, but I have had an in-depth tour of the plant, I know some of the operators and management, and I have read what I could about the plant's design engineering. And I can't yet come to the same conclusions you do as I watch the unfolding events in Japan.

Essentially what you say is still that "it can't happen here" because we will not have the equivalent of the 9.0 hurricane and tsunami here. You wrote "it just cannot be duplicated here," an absolute statement, not even "it is highly unlikely to be duplicated here," which would at least acknowledge a smidgin of doubt.

But if the Japanese situation teaches us anything at all, it is that the worst-case scenario that can happen is always worse than the worst case you imagined. You may not be able to imagine a worst case that would end up with helicopters trying to scoop water out of the river and dump it on VY, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. With the right weather, seismic activity, operator error, undiscovered malfunctions (remember the collapsed cooling tower) or determined set of terrorists, it can happen here, and that possibility, however remote it may be, needs to be acknowledged in our thinking about VY.

If VY wishes to continue it press its case with the state of Vermont, it should begin with that acknowledgment, and to deal with it in an open fashion, not by pooh-poohing those who ask questions, and certainly not by saying "it just can't happen here." That statement won't fly, if it ever did.

VY could begin by reopening the Hunt house and conducting public tours and information sessions — the SEC has no prohibitions on that. VY should go beyond the scripted information releases on its site, and begin to understand and use social media like blogs and Facebook to get its message out. It has done much, over 40 years, to be a good neighbor in the community, but it should go beyond good deeds and largesse and begin to communicate openly, honestly and frequently. It needs to stop talking about negatives (how much my electric rate might rise) and start talking about positives (if we make this deal, the plan can be fully decommissioned in 20 years rather than in 60 or 80 years). It might consider renaming its website to something more neutral, also. It's an uphill fight, and besides good communication it will require the presentation of an incredibly good deal for Vermont.

Martin Langeveld said...

Correction to my previous comment: I think I wrote SEC. I meant NRC, of course.

Meredith Angwin said...

I appreciate everyone's comments. As I said yesterday, I have appointments today and will not be home to moderate comments or post.

Martin, I agree I was too positive. I was reacting to statements that were the equivalent of "it's about to happen here." One can never say it "can't happen here" and I am sorry I said it so strongly.

The situation in Japan is very hard to follow. The helicopters are putting water on the fuel pools? the stricken reactors? what? Though I made this appointment about a non-nuclear writing assignment a while back, I admit to gratitude that I can get away from my computer and hopefully, more complete information will come in and I will be able to comment with a better information base.

The nuclear situation in Japan is dangerous and horrible, and I do not in any way intend to say it's no-big-deal. It's a nightmare. My heart goes out to the people working at the plant and to everyone, all through Japan, suffering dislocation, homelessness and fear.

I'll be late to my appt. Sorry if there are misspellings.


Martin Langeveld said...

Here is a fresh, top-down detailed satellite photo taken today, Thursday morning. Link goes to large format, you can use your browser to zoom in further.

Note that at reactor #1, the roof is entirely gone, but the refueling floor is a uniform gray - perhaps a lot of ash and debris from the explosion, the spent fuel pool is not visible.

At #3, the explosion seems to have been worse, the steel superstructure is crumbled inward (from heat?), and again nothing is visible on the refueling floor.There appears to be damage to walls and concrete structure below the refueling floor as well.

At #4 the roof girders are still in place.

Larry Gilman said...

Dear Meredith,

I'm a neighbor of yours, over here in Sharon. I perceive from your blog that you are a civil and sane person. We do disagree on this issue, however.

I think rolf.parkerhoughton's remarks stand. The hair-raising state of US plant security, or rather insecurity, is detailed at . Some improvements were announced by the NRC in 2004, but it remains only a slight exaggeration to say that a band of well-armed Girl Scouts could take over Vermont Yankee or almost any other plant in the country and do whatever they liked with it. Yet really adequate site security would greatly raise costs -- an outcome not tolerable to owners, investors, or regulators committed to promotion of the technology -- so our nuclear sites remain ripe for the picking. Has the NRC ever yet looked seriously at what a team of terrorists could do _deliberately_ to a spent fuel pool like Vermont Yankee’s, and what the consequences would be? I don’t think the amount of material on-site is “not particularly relevant” to such questions.

Japanese and international antinuclear activists have been protesting about specific safety deficits at Fukushima for years -- including some that have come into play since the tsunami. Now that these people have been proved substantially correct in their concerns, do not their concerns about other plants, and other aspects of nuclear power, deserve at the very least a renewed and serious hearing, rather than continued dismissal of the It Can’t Happen Here sort?

When a disaster happens that experts and officials assured us was essentially impossible, isn’t it reasonable to doubt the next round of assurances?


Larry Gilman, PhD EE

Anonymous said...

The US government, including its regulatory agencies, has been largely captured by the corporate sector, which, by means of campaign donations, is able to secure compliant politicians and regulators. (In this context it is not entirely irrelevant that employees of the nuclear operator Exelon Corporation have been among Barack Obama's biggest campaign donors, and that Obama appointed Exelon's CEO to his Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Energy Future.)

We have examples from the not-so-distant American past of the government learning important lessons from big mistakes. After the Great Crash, the government reformed the banking system. After the near disaster of the Cuban Missile Crisis, US and Soviet presidents began signing arms control agreements. After the discovery of the Love Canal environmental contamination, Congress passed Superfund legislation.

But we now have a government captured by special interests, paralyzed by partisanship, and confused by astroturfing political groups and phony scientific experts for sale to the highest bidder. Our democracy and our regulatory agencies are husks of what they once were. It is unclear that such a system is capable of learning any lessons or indeed of doing anything much beyond generating speeches and passing the responsibility for failure back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball between our two yapping political parties. While we are distracted by the theater of Congress and the White House, our fate lies in other hands.

Martin Langeveld said...

Today, VY ran another advertisement in its VY4VT series, featuring a local business person's opinion that electric rates will rise if VY closes. (Just so you don't think I'm oversimplifying the message, here is the text in its entirety: "Vermont Yankee needs to stay open. I'm just really concerned that if Vermont Yankee closes, electric rates will skyrocket in this area. If you're going to close Vermont Yankee, you have to have something else to furnish electricity in its place. I think it's totally unnecessary for it to close and to impact the region as it will if it does close."

You have to wonder what the thinking is behind running this ad ad this time. Does Entergy really believe that this person's concern, that "electric rates will skyrocket in this area," reflects the concerns that people have in Vermont with regard to the plant? Or is VY trying to substitute a pocketbook concern for a very real health and safety concern? Continuing this ill-conceived ad campaign is an indication of Entergy's general lack of sensitivity to the real concerns of real people in Vermont.

Just in case any Entergy PR people tune into these comments, here's my free advice on the kinds of ads VY should be running right now. If I were writing the message, I would start off like this:

"The crisis in Japan has been a sobering experience for all of us at Entergy. The big lesson we learned is that unimaginable scenarios can become reality. We know that many of VY's neighbors share that concern, and we want to begin, in this advertisement and in more to come, to address those concerns. We also want to listen to you and to respond to your specific questions. We will do that in public meetings; we will re-open our visitor center for public information tours; we are launching a Facebook page to communicate with you directly; and we have set up an email and 800-number hotline you may use.

"In addition, we have launched a from-scratch review of all plant safety systems, with the particular goal of finding single-point vulnerabilities and worst-case accident scenarios that need to be addressed.

"Beyond that, within the next month, we will make public a comprehensive offer regarding the 20-year license extension for the State of Vermont to consider, including electric rates, tax payments, decommissioning fund payments, and major safety upgrades. We believe that when all risks and benefits are taken into consideration, this will be an attractive offer for Vermont.

"We ask that the citizens of Vermont engage with us in addressing all concerns. In doing this, we hope to earn your trust and confidence, and to be able to continue to serve your energy needs."

When four plants just like VY's are in partial meltdown in Japan, doesn't that kind of message make more sense than "if VY closes, electric rates will skyrocket?"

If they want me to write any more than that, I do this for a living, and I'm available.

Anonymous said...

The safety and security of US nuclear plants are only as good as the company and people who implement and manage policy and procedures. And this is by far my greatest worry.

Unfortunately, there is a clear pattern of neglecting safety in favor of profit in the US. I have increasingly less doubt that nuclear could be safely implemented in this country if it weren't for that troubling fact. When push comes to shove, the bottom line takes precedent over the health and security of the American people.

Until this trait of American private enterprise can be overcome, I just cannot support expansion of nuclear power. I trust the technology (as best I understand it)but have absolutely no faith in the industry. Lies and safety compromises come far too easily.

Eric said...

I came upon this article while trying to find a little more info about what is going on in Japan. My background is that I am a nuclear engineer on a submarine, and I also grew up 15 miles from Three mile Island and another nuclear plant in PA with a number of my friends' parents working at such places. It may seem like a rant, but I assure you it isn't

Yes, we should all hang our heads in shame. It is shameful that a reactor that was designed for something like an 8.5 earthquake, and a 20 foot tsunami (those aren't exact, but I can't find the article I read that stated these) withstood a 9.0 earthquake, and 33 foot tsunami. Let's also take in to account that the plant was not very far from the epicenter. Look at how many people whom have died from everything that goes into modern nuclear power (mining, fabrication, operation). Compare that to coal and petroleum. Were we not just bashing the oil industry for the BP oil spill last year?

As an engineer in the nuclear power industry, it is insulting that I should have demands that I bow my head and show some humility. I know my job and I know the safety concerns that go along with it. One can not be in this industry and not have respect for the power you have at your disposal, and the lives that are at risk. This is common with many modern technologies.

I don't know where it will go from here, but nuclear power has a very good track record. 20% of our energy in this country comes from nuclear power. We (as a population total) are constantly whining about everything. Gas prices are too high, or BP was irresponsible, or nuclear power is unsafe. Wind farms kill birds, and hydroelectric dams up the river, and fossil fuels pollute. Well, you have to take some risks to make progress, and if nuclear power goes away, expect to be paying more money to foreign countries that supply oil, because that's our only short term option.

We may come to rely more on other sources of alternative energy, but there are really no good choices right now, and nuclear power is tried and true. Maybe safety could use a good improvement, but we are basing a lot of our opinions on 40 year old technology. Take a look at some of the new designs. We have come a very long way since TMI. I also don't have too much insight into commercial nuclear power, but I know that the navy has very competent people operating and maintaining the reactors, and while we aren't blemish free, we haven't had anything serious. We are designed to protect against operator, and really, anything short of sabotage. To imply that a chernobyl like accident could happen would be laughable. Now, like I said, my knowledge of these plants is limited to discussions I have had with friends that work at these similar plants, so please correct me if I am wrong.

This isn't meant to insult anyone, but the engineers are good people, so please don't insult us by using your CNN and wikipedia knowledge and cramming it down our throats. It only puts us in fight or flight mode, and a lot of us will fight for what we believe in.

Martin Langeveld said...

Eric wrote: "nuclear power has a very good track record."

I am not a nuclear opponent; I live two miles from VY and have generally supportive of its operations and of its relicensing with the right terms. But Fukushima has given me pause, as it should give all of us pause, and I have not been able to make up my mind. Which is why I'm listening here and elsewhere for good information.

One of the things I now question is the "nuclear power has a very good track record." There are some 440 active reactors in the world today, and perhaps 100 or more that have been decommissioned. In addition to 6 very serious accidents at Three Mile, Chernobyl and Fukushima (which I'm counting as 4), there have been other significant accidents, as well as a series of radioactive spills and leaks. (A comprehensive list, which does not include tritium leaks, is here: In addition, there's a list of military nuclear accidents here:

Is that a "very good track record?" Six very serious accidents and dozens of less serious accidents at (I believe) fewer than 1000 total reactors ever constructed? If planes crashed at that rate, no one would get into them.

Some reassurance jumps out from this list: the rate of accidents has decreased in recent decades, and a disproportionate number are in the USSR/Russia and Japan. The US safety record is much better and as you say much has been improved since TMI and 9/11.

But as I noted, I'm not convinced, and many people are not convinced. I think Entergy and the whole nuclear industry needs to be taking a different tack from the usual arguments that "your rates will go up if these plants close." (We have another ad in today's Reformer with that argument.) See my previous comment for my views on how their pitch should be framed.

Meredith Angwin said...

Hello to all. There comes a point (and I am at it) where I realize I will never "catch up" and have to go forward instead. Thank you all for your comments.

In overview, I agree with many things that Martin says, and that Eric said (of course!).

I do not agree with Larry Gilman that a band of armed girlscouts could take over any nuclear installation in the country, or with others who claim terrorism should be a big concern. Nuclear plants are "hardened targets": they are small, have to be hit "just right" to do significant damage, and are very well guarded from the ground. Less well guarded from the air, but once again, you have to assume either a major bombing run (not the kind of thing terrorists do) or something amazing about hitting the plant just-so on a suicide mission. Terrorists generally want to be assured of success. They run their planes into really big buildings, or send suicide bombers to marketplaces or mosques where many people have gathered. A nuclear plant gives them a VERY small probability of success.

By the way, I think Mr. Gilman wrote an excellent description of visiting the StateHouse in Montpelier, which appeared in my local paper about a year ago. I could be wrong, though. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it. I remember thinking that Mr. Gilman was a civil and sane person, even though we disagreed about Vermont Yankee. I am glad he thinks the same of me!

There are other comments about not trusting anything industrial. I don't agree with those, having worked in various industries, which definitely had human problems, but usually got the job done anyway. However, trust or not-trust is a viewpoint that starts very young (see Childhood and Society by Erikson) and I never argue with people whose belief system is not-trust-anyone. I can't change them, and they can't change me, and it's like arguing about religion, so I don't do it.

Once again, thanks to everyone for their comments.