Tuesday, March 02, 2010

"When Hippies Get the Bomb" or the Threat of a Nuclear Vermont...

Last month the Vermont legislature voted overwhelming to deny a renewal for the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear facility just over the Massachusetts-Vermont line.  The move was praised by environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists, and Franklin County (MA) politicians as well as Green Mountain State's sizable leftist population.

Vermont Yankee is set to shut down in 2012 when its current license expires.  Vermont is the only state in the country where the approval of the legislature is required in order for nuclear power plants to be licensed.  Traditionally, oversight and regulation of nuclear power is left up to the federal government as it has the resources and national security credentials to monitor something as temperamental as plutonium and uranium.  Federal rules still apply to Vermont Yankee , but the folks in Montpelier get their say, too.

Nuclear power has always been a political dicey issues.  Initially, when nuclear power was first put online as a means to generate electricity, it was hailed as a clear, efficient means of generating power--and it was.  However, as scientists began to learn more about the health effects of nuclear power and the Cold War ramped up, fears of nuclear devastation grew exponentially.  Opposition solidified during the 1960's when nuclear power was seen as an arm of American intervention in foreign nations and a component of the US and Soviet Union's determination to see Mutually Assured Destruction come about.

And so up until 1979, opposition remained largely based on theoretical outcomes, suspicion, and politics.  It was becoming clear, however, that the cleanliness of nuclear power became suspect as runoff and the spent nuclear fuel rods proved environmentally and ecologically tricky and even dangerous.  However, it probably would not be until Three Mile Island that American popular wisdom turned against splitting atoms for electricity.

The nuclear accident at the Three Mile Nuclear facility in Pennsylvania, however, was not a catastrophe, however.  Appropriate evacuation procedures were followed, leaks were minimal and/or posed little threat to human health, and the area surrounding the facility was eventually declared safe.  President Jimmy Carter even visited the plant within days of the incident, an event that would not have happened if there was any risk.  There were no deaths, and although the reactor that melted down was taken offline, Three Mile Island's other reactor continue to provide electricity to this day.

Seven years later, however, a real nuclear disaster did unfold.  The Chernobyl facility in then-USSR controlled Ukraine suffered a massive melt down.  A decidedly unsafe amount of radioactive material was released into the atmosphere.  The cloud would eventually hover across Europe the effects felt as far away as Scandinavia.  The Soviet government was criticized for failing to ask for help after the disaster, delaying evacuation of a nearby city, and for the steps it did take before, during, and after the incident occurred.  Days passed before the Soviet government even admitted publicly there was a problem.  United States keyhole satellites confirmed what many had suspected before the Soviet admission.

Those two disasters notwithstanding, nuclear power has been a problematic, but largely safe way to generate power.  Vermont's decision to effectively terminate the plant in 2012 may seem like good sense politically with its leftist tendencies (the state has the nation's only avowed Socialist Senator).  However, Vermont Yankee provides a huge amount of the Green Mountain State's electricity.  Lacking any immediate replacement source or effective plans for the same, that power will probably need to be imported from out of state after 2012.

Opponents of a renewed license pointed to the above nuclear meltdowns, a cooling tower collapse and recent news that nuclear material known as Tritium had been discovered leaking from the plant.  The latter notwithstanding, the shutdown of the plant will hurt Vermont electrical consumers short-term and make difficult green energy developments.  Anti-nuclear champions have been looking to shut the plant down for years.  

The fears and environmental impact of nuclear power remain outweighed by the effectiveness of nuclear power to deliver electricity to a nation attempting to wean itself off greenhouse gas heavy alternatives.  With green technology years away from replacing fossil fuel electric plants, nuclear energy, if only as a temporary solution, must be seriously considered. For these reasons and others, the Obama administration's decision to guarantee the construction of new nuclear power plants in the US is sound.  Obama himself has had a history of supporting nuclear power a fact that environmentalists and the left more generally cannot pretend is a shock.

The critics back at Vermont Yankee also point to the age of the facility and say that it is time for it to shut down quietly.  One Massachusetts legislator said that this is why nuclear licenses expire.  If there was any reason to believe that Vermont Yankee's age posed any threat to area residents, this argument, might have merit.  However, since no new nuclear facilities have been built in the US in decades, all plants and their reactors are getting on in years and many of up for renewal.  Better oversight given Yankee's problems, not shut down, might be more in line.

None of these arguments would placate the politically active Vermont.  Despite being a state that is demographically and geographically suited for more conservative tendencies, liberals dominate.  This itself is not the problem.  Rather it points to a problem with popular liberalism on the issue in a place like Vermont.  The hippies aside (and rumor has it that there are many who live the dated 60's lifestyle), for whatever reason a number of Vermonters succumbed to one of the few unfortunate components of liberal ideology, namely opposition to nuclear power.  Using the above disasters, real concerns about waste storage (especially given the effective abandonment of Yucca Mountain, NV), and pacifist propaganda (that often bolsters the rights absurd accusations that peace-niks and liberals are under Communist control), anti-nuclear advocates succeeded in shutting down the plant.

Nuclear power is no panacea for the nation's energy problems.  As it has its risks, it occupies a dicey position between dwindling and polluting fossil fuels and not-quite-widespread wind, solar, and water power.  It is certainly more effective than an over reliance on new oil-drilling.  The ecological effect alone, barring scientists discovering a process that neutralize waste quickly, is reason enough to know that nuclear power cannot be a permanent solution.  However, given what we know about nuclear power and what it can provide, the ultimate anti-environmental energy source (at least in the eyes of some) could be the necessary transition piece of America ever puzzling energy future.

1 comment:

D.O. said...

>>Vermont Yankee provides a huge amount of the Green Mountain State's electricity.<<

This from CAN: " There is enough power right now to replace VY. CVPS recently stated that it could replace Vermont Yankee and enter into an agreement with other power producers if needed. Remember, Vermont Yankee only provides about 270 MW of power to Vermont - the rest, more than half, is sold out of state."

How huge can it be?