By Beth Daley
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday put a temporary hold on a 20-year license extension for the controversial Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. The commission had instructed its staff to issue the renewal last Thursday, the day before the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Spokesman Neil Sheehan attributed the delay to the fact that manpower is short while the agency focuses resources on helping Japan deal with the unfolding nuclear crisis triggered by the natural disaster.
But opponents of the nearly 40-year-old plant, who note it is the same design as the most compromised reactor in Japan, said the delay should be far longer -- until the agency can assure the public the plant is safe.
Vermont Yankee, in Vernon near the Massachusetts border, has suffered a series of problems in recent years that have frayed the public trust, including the collapse of a cooling tower and leaks of tritium from underground pipes that company officials initially said were not there.
“I think it is prudent to take a step back and say this reactor design is having serious problems in Japan ,’’ said James Moore, clean energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “The last thing we should do is say it is good to go for another 20 years past its expiration date.”
Germany has shut down seven aging plants until they can be assessed for safety in the wake of the Japanese crisis. In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a review at Russian nuclear facilities. India's plants are also undergoing a review.
The Obama administration, however, has not ordered any similar review and has continued to back nuclear power through the crisis, saying it would learn lessons from Japan's nuclear problems. President Obama has embraced nuclear power, requesting $36 billion for government-backed loans to help the nuclear industry build additional plants in his budget proposal.
While the delay has given some hope to opponents of the Yankee plant, it is unclear whether there is any possibility, legally, of the commission actually reversing the decision it made last week, when it allowed staff to issue the license.
Yesterday, Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said it was his understanding the delay was merely a temporary one and the license would be issued soon.
The timing of the Japanese crisis couldn't be worse for the nuclear industry, as it attempts a broad rebirth as a green energy source to combat global warming; the reactors do not emit greenhouse gases that cause the atmosphere to warm.
Vermont Yankee provides roughly one-third of the Green Mountain State’s electricity, and for the most part inexpensively. That low cost - and the jobs it provides - has won it some support in the state. Still, antinuclear sentiment, always an undercurrent in this liberal state, gained a new foothold in 2006 after the plant received NRC permission to increase its power output by 20 percent.
Beth Daley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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