by Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA
The final closing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant in Vernon got few headlines outside Vermont, but for me it brought back a flood of memories and an important lesson. I am convinced that public involvement with nuclear power in Vermont was a factor preventing an accident over the plant’s life of more than 40 years.
From 1973 to 1976 I was the State Health Commissioner, and, due to a strange set of historical circumstances, Vermont had a special relationship to its nuclear utility. The Health Department took the lead for the State, assigning one full-time civil servant to Vermont Yankee.
It all started in the late ’60s, when the utility wanted to build a nuclear power plant alongside the Connecticut River in Vernon, about as far South as one can go in Vermont. Fearing delays during regulatory oversight of the plans, the utility wrote to then state Attorney General James Jeffords. The company made an unusual promise. It would comply with all state regulations. (At that time there were none dealing specifically with nuclear reactors). It would never invoke the preemption clause of the US Atomic Energy Act to challenge Vermont authority over the plant. Regulatory review went smoothly; in retrospect, perhaps more smoothly than it should have.
The utility bought a boiling water reactor from General Electric. The Vernon plant was similar to other GE boiling water reactors, but, as we learned, unique in several ways. Its one-of-kind design became central to debates about whether it was safe, as there were no identical plants with longer performance histories to look at. Most importantly, the torus was different, raising the question of what might happen in a loss of coolant event.
I knew little about generating electricity with nuclear reactors. I had been strongly opposed to nuclear weaponry–initially America’s use of uranium and plutonium fission weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. I knew that President Eisenhower had created the Atoms for Peace Program to put the US nuclear weapons program in a more favorable light. But could nuclear power plants be run safely? Could radioactive wastes be stored safely for their centuries–long half-lives? On these questions, I was agnostic.
When I became Health Commissioner in 1973, there were many hotter health issues in the state, most of them concerning medical care, but not in Vermont’s southeast corner around Brattleboro. Down there, Vermont Yankee divided the community. The Health Department, too, was divided, but we were aware that because of the letter sent to Jim Jeffords, we seemed to share with the Federal Government responsibility for making sure that no Vermonters would be harmed by the new reactor.
There was no chance that Vermont would re-create in Montpelier or Brattleboro the scientific capacity of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). (The regulatory agency was split off from the Atomic Energy Commission in January 1974.) So Vermont chose instead to piggyback our efforts on NRC oversight and make the process far more open. We asked that Vermont Yankee share with us all of their communication to and from the NRC. They complied.
We had one BS-level nuclear chemist who had worked for Union Carbide. David Scott was living in Rochester, Vermont and commuting to Barre, to the Health Department’s Occupational Health Office. His wife Pat was Brandon Town Manager. Dave took it upon himself to read all of the communications from the utility to the NRC and from the NRC to the utility. These became the basis for his weekly “inspection” trip to the plant in Vernon. Occasionally the utility was reporting “abnormal occurrences.”
Dave had many questions and didn’t always feel he was getting complete answers. Was the GE design amenable to precise control? Human errors seemed too easy to make in the complex control room. He once described to me the problem of running the Vernon boiling water reactor: “It is like asking someone trained to drive a big truck to take the wheel of a Ferrari on a narrow winding road.” Yet that was not the image that the utility conveyed. Dave felt uncomfortable, caught between Vermont Yankee and the NRC.
I asked the Attorney General, the Chairman of the Public Service Board, the Environmental Secretary, and the Civil Defense Director to join me and together constitute the Vermont Nuclear Advisory Committee. Scott staffed the group and I chaired it. We met monthly in an open meeting to review developments at Vermont Yankee. We asked the utility to send a representative and make a report to the advisory committee.
We often asked the same questions that the NRC had asked. How much radioactive waste was released into the river? What would happen were there a fire in the charcoal filters at the top of the stack? How much radiation was emitted as “turbine shine” and reached the elementary school across the street from the generating plant? Was local milk contaminated with strontium 90 (90Sr) from grass consumed by local cows? (90Sr emits beta-radiation, is metabolized like calcium, and concentrates in milk and then in bones.) The NRC usually accepted the responses from Vermont Yankee. The NRC had been part of the Atomic Energy Commission that had suffered from its conflicted roles of promoting nuclear power and keeping the public safe. The new NRC remained ambivalent. No one from the Health Department or the other state agencies felt that our role was to protect the utility.
Scott needed help, so we turned to Henry Kendall at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts who was studying problems at an older power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania that had opened in 1958. We also worked with a couple of consultants who had managed nuclear reactors for the Navy. We learned that nuclear engineers from the Navy (and that would include President Jimmy Carter) were skeptical and questioning about how the AEC designed and managed reactors.
Scott even invited my boss, Human Services Secretary Tom Davis, down to Vernon where we looked at the reactor and the pools where spent fuel was to be stored until it could be moved out of state. For many weeks we remained amused by an exchange between the Secretary and the Yankee executive who took us on the tour. Tom pointed out that there was no state inspection card in the plant’s giant elevator. This seemed to unglue the folks from Yankee far more than the questions about radiation.
I also asked a medical school classmate, Peter Gibbons, who practiced radiology in Brattleboro to participate in discussions. He was trusted by the citizenry, understood the health effects of radiation, and could reflect local concerns. One member of the State Board of Health, Richard Waitt from Brattleboro, seemed particularly pleased to have the Health Department engaged with their local concerns.
For the most vocal opponent of nuclear power, the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, we provided a public forum for raising further questions about the operations of Vermont Yankee and the safety of nuclear power generation more generally.
One person was particularly unhappy about the public process. That was Stella Hackel, the Democratic candidate for Governor in 1976. Candidate Hackel said she would fire me if she became Governor. She had been a lawyer for the utility.
Vermont surely had a different climate for the debate, but it is hard to say that Vermont had a safer nuclear power plant because of the public attention given to Yankee’s operation. In the last forty years, no utility has considered building a new nuclear plant in Vermont. The sale of Vermont Yankee to Entergy in 2002 was a drawn out process, and after the NRC’s 20-year extension of the plant’s operating license was challenged by the Legislature in 2010, Entergy tried to find a buyer for the plant. The state lost in Federal court in 2013, and Entergy abandoned the idea of selling the plant, choosing in 2014 to close it instead.
One wonders if, had the plants at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima been subject to the same kind of public scrutiny as Vermont Yankee, whether the world would have been spared their disasters.
Anthony Robbins, MD, MPA is co-Editor of the Journal of Public Health Policy. (Facebook pagehere.) He directed the Vermont Department of Health, the Colorado Department of Health, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and the U.S. National Vaccine Program.