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Monday, Apr 22, 2024

Vermont Nuclear Power Plant

Author: [no author name found]

Several years ago, I had the chance to chat with a former captain of an American nuclear submarine. An avowed believer in nuclear power, old clichés like "too cheap to meter" and "the peaceful atom" resonated strongly with him. After a long career in the nuclear Navy, the captain had decided to re-enter civilian life, and took a job at a commercial nuclear reactor in the Northeast. But, almost immediately, he found himself in conflict with his superiors over safety issues. Aboard a submarine, he explained, workers don't worry about price tags; simply put, problems are identified and solved. But commercial reactors operate according to a different logic: Their goal is to cut a profit, and they keep constant watch on the bottom line. Leaks don't necessarily get repaired; all too often they simply get plugged up.
It is in the economic interest of all commercial power plants to first make repairs cheaply and quickly and second, to ensure that the public does not become alarmed. After all, the success of a nuclear power plant is dependent on the public's continued belief that nukes are safe and cost-effective. Thus, the operators of nuclear power plants depend on the most savvy of public relations specialists, and, all too often, the running of a nuclear power plant becomes an exercise in brushing problems under the rug and delivering false impressions of what goes on.
This week, the operators of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant met a crisis, and their response has been deeply troubling. According to an article published in The Brattleboro Reformer, on the night of Nov. 10 the night manager at a Gulf gas station found two Gateway 2000 desktop computers in the station's dumpster. Upon plugging in these computers — which, according to the article, he found "fully operational" — the manager found a file that contained pictures of the control room of Vermont Yankee. Included in these images were pictures of "someone inserting a cylindrical-shaped object into some type of hole."
Given increased speculation that terrorists could target American nuclear power plants, and given that last year, the Vermont Yankee reactor, along with just one other plant, was ranked most vulnerable to terrorist attack, this discovery should not be taken lightly. (This is not to suggest that the plant has not made improvements in its security. On the same day that the computers were discovered, Vermont Yankee led a group of journalists on a tour of the plant, showcasing the security improvements that have been implemented.)
But a spokesman for Vermont Yankee was quick to ensure Vermonters that this incident would not constitute a breach of Vermont Yankee security. In other words, in responding to this incident, Vermont Yankee took its PR cue from its counterparts in the American nuclear industry: mistakes at nuclear reactors are not possible, because safety is guaranteed.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was also quick to caution Vermonters against alarm. "We don't believe that there is any cause for concern as far as the security of the plant," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan was quoted as saying in the Reformer article.
But the Vermont-based New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution is not so confident. On the 13th of November, the organization contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation and demanded a thorough investigation.
"This should not be dismissed as an isolated incident if it is not firmly proven that no other compromising information is out there," said Raymond Shadis, staff adviser to the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution.
Deb Katz of the Massachusetts-based Citizen's Awareness Network offered a similar perspective, when quoted in the Reformer article: "It's all of these little glitches that nobody that nobody thinks of that can lad to serious consequences … The NRC and the reactor have not looked at the issue of sabotage, either internally or externally, in enough detail."
It makes little sense that the two perspectives should be at such extreme odds. While opponents of nuclear power are requesting, in a sober and respectful manner, that this incident be investigated, the proponents of nuclear power – both VY and the NRC – have rushed to take the opposing perspective, even before the inquiry got underway. A truly good neighbor, it seems, should be most concerned with limiting or eliminating the risk posed towards the people of Vermont, and it seems clear that conducting a thorough investigation of the incident is the best way to do that. The security of Vermonters aught to be of greater significance than the image of the state's nuclear reactor.

Edith Honan is a Senior from Connecticut