Can Shumlin’s Arguments Against Vermont Yankee Pass the “Sniff Test”?

The State of Vermont and their Governor Peter Shumlin want to shut down Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant.  Unfortunately for their cause, only the Federal Government, in this case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the legal authority to regulate nuclear plant safety.  In March the NRC granted the plant permission to operate for another 20 years. Shumlin and his followers don’t like that.  They really want the plant shut down.  In fact, it will be a major political defeat for Shumlin if he looses this fight against the evil foreigners from Louisiana.  Plus, if he fails, he’ll renege on a campaign promise he made to all the anti-nuclear activists that gravitated to his cause. But they can’t shut the plant down for SAFTEY concerns because they don’t have that authority AND because the plant is undeniably safe.  You see, the NRC has a very structured and systematic process for determining whether or not a plant is being operated safely and Vermont Yankee passes with flying colors.  In fact, much to the chagrin of Pete Shumlin, VY consistently gets some of the highest safety marks of the 104 commercial reactors in the USA! So what does the state of Vermont say?  “Oh we’re not trying to regulate SAFETY!  We’re concerned over RELIABILITY and the ECONOMICIS of the nuclear plant.  That’s why we want it shut down!” I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment on the legal virtuosity of Shumlin’s claims.  Instead, why not exercise a more basic test we can all understand: the “sniff test.” I’m sure Governor Shumlin knows what the sniff test is.  After all, he grew up on a dairy farm. One of several Internet dictionaries defines a sniff test like this: Noun sniff test (plural sniff tests): An informal reality check of an idea or proposal, using one’s common sense or sense of propriety. In the small town in Indian where I was raised we’re a bit more blunt.  We say if an argument smells like manure it probably is, and therefore it would fail the sniff test. So let’s look at Vermont’s claims that it would shut down Vermont Yankee nuclear plant because of economic and reliability concerns. First the facts of the economic case: in negotiations with the state, Vermont Yankee agreed to sell electricity to Vermont utilities at lower rates than it would charge customers in neighboring states. The plant employs more than 600 full time employees whose payroll adds $50 million per year to the local economy. Each year Entergy, the plant’s owner donates approx. $370,00 to local charities. If the plant is allowed to run for an additional 20 years it would add over $2 billion...

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Putting Picos In Perspective
Feb12

Putting Picos In Perspective

Fast Fission Podcast #23 – Download mp3 Here Ever thought about how many zeros there are there in a “pico” something? Remember back in grade school when we learned the metric system of measures?  We started out with units that are easy to visualize: meters get 1000 times bigger and become kilometers; meters get 1000 times smaller and become millimeters.  We understand these intuitively because we have a frame of reference and can visualize each of those unites of length and distance.  Units of mass are the same way; we know a gram is a small unit of mass – we can hold a gram of almost any material in the palm of our hand.  For example, a penny weighs 2.5 grams. Stack up 400 pennies and you have a kilogram, or 1000 grams.  Cut a thin copper shaving off a penny and you have a milligram, or one 1,000th of a gram.  Again, these are things we can see, and that makes it easier to understand. As our schooling progressed we learned about very large and very small numbers, exponents, and scientific notation.  We put these principles to use in science and learned there are other units of measure larger than a “kilo” and smaller than a “milli”.  These are harder to visualize because we have to think in terms we can’t see.  For example, the mass of Mount Everest,  is 3E18 grams, or 3 “exa-grams” and the mass of the planet earth is 6×10^24 kg, or 6E27 grams (6,000 “yotta-grams”) (see note below). On the opposite end of the scale is the prefix “nano” or 1E-9 of a unit. A nanometer is 1E-9 meters, and a nanosecond is 0.000000001 seconds.  I had a hard time visualizing a nano second of time until I learned that it takes about 1 nanosecond for a beam of light to travel one foot.  That kind of puts a nano into perspective, doesn’t it?  The newest computer chips, for example have transistors with a thickness of 45 nanometers!  We can only see things that small with powerful electron microscopes. A “pico” is even smaller than a “nano” , 1000 times smaller!  “Pico” means there are 12 places behind the decimal point.  Even for a person like me who deals with engineering and science all the time, it can be difficult to visualize a “pico” of something.  A pico is so small that even a million picos is still very small amount. It takes a million, million pico grams to make one gram.  If you have a million pico-curies in a liter of water, it would take one million liters to provide a...

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What if: Nuclear Rules for Automobile Safety Recalls?

Fast Fission Podcast #23 – Download MP3 Here I’ve been reading a lot about the Toyota gas pedal recall because I own a Camry that is a few years old.  Several people have been killed in accidents resulting from sudden acceleration caused by a faulty accelerator design. So far my car is not in the group of affected vehicles, but I’m keeping my eye on it. I’m sure you’ve noticed the press is having a feeding frenzy and many are demonizing Toyota. Congress has decided to get involved – they’ve scheduled a hearing to oversee the government’s response. Overall it’s been much like when an airplane crashes or a contaminated food product gets recalled – some people die, government agencies demand action to fix the immediate problem, and politicians act concerned until the media moves on to the next high profile news story. Then the hypocrisy dawned on me – how differently we treat problems in the nuclear industry! For example, in Vermont where a minute, a barely measurable quantity of slightly radioactive liquid in test wells has politicians demanding action from Federal regulators, the state government and Public Service Board are delaying important decisions that threaten the plant’s long term financial viability, and many newspapers are regurgitating unsubstantiated claims of environmental harm made by sworn enemies of the plant.   Keep in mind that the tritium that has leaked from Vermont Yankee has not broken any laws, not exceeded any environmental limits, nor harmed even the smallest field mouse. Consider that in the entire history of the US nuclear industry (about 40 years) not a single person has died from a reactor mishap at any commercial nuclear reactor in the United States. However, in this single instance of a gas pedal design defect a number of people have died (the exact number is not available) , many more have been injured, and these types of problems occur almost every year! If the government response to the Toyota acceleration issue, a problem that has actually killed people, used the same rules that we apply to the operation of commercial nuclear plants (where no deaths have occurred) we would have Placed a federal ban on driving all Toyotas until the problem was thoroughly analyzed, the root cause determined, and repairs completed. There would be an extent of condition analysis by a team of engineers to determine what other vehicles have similar gas pedals, and to recommend a course of action. We would have added two full time government (NTSB) inspectors to every automobile manufacturing plant and every licensed automobile repair shop. The auto makers and repair shops would have to pay the salaries of the inspectors, plus...

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Tritium: Fuel for Antinuclear Reactions

Fast Fission Podcast #22 – Get the MP3 File Here There is a political and public relations cauldron boiling in Vermont over a recently discovered tritium leak at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.   Tritium is a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen and has a 10 day biological half-life when it is ingested by humans.  The leak is minute and completely inconsequential from a safety standpoint: the tritium levels very low.  Only one ground water sample is slightly above federal drinking water standards (even though the sample points are far away from any sources of drinking water).  In fact, the levels are so low that even if you drank water from the test wells, and nothing else, for an ENTIRE YEAR your radiation exposure would be only about 1/10 of what you would receive from one medical x-ray, and a small fraction of your exposure from the natural background radiation.  Eating the same quantity of brazil nuts every day, one of the most naturally radioactive foods, would result in MORE exposure to radiation than bathing in the water in these test wells! These facts have not stopped the antinuclear groups in the area from going berserk.  They know when they have the upper hand on a public relations issue, and they are doing everything they can to take advantage of it.   Adding fuel to the fire are allegations of false statements by plant officials.  At a PSB hearing last spring a plant executive stated he did not believe there was any active buried piping containing radioactive fluids.  The official said the plant would verify that was the case and would get back to the board, but reportedly they did not.  Potentially adding to the communication difficulties –  the phrases “Buried piping” and “underground piping” do NOT mean the same thing.  To an engineer the term “buried” piping refers to piping that is buried underground in direct contact with the soil.  Underground piping means the piping is below grade and could be located in a vault or concrete trench.  Plant personnel have apologized for the miscommunication and are actively looking for the source of the leak.  Timing could not be worse because the VT public service commission has yet to make a ruling on Entergy’s proposal to create a new nuclear only generating company, and the VT state legislature has yet to vote on the plant’s request for a license extension. Vermont Yankee has passed every NRC inspection in flying colors and is operated both safely and reliably.  In fact, the plant recently earned the highest possible rating from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. John Wheeler This Week in...

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Dissapointed by Facts They Don’t Like, Anti-nuclear Activists Resort to Throwing Compost

Anti-nuclear activists in Vermont are a strange breed.  Yesterday the NRC gave Vermont Yankee the high marks they deserve for plant safety and other performance measures.  The anry anti-nukes responded with compost, throwing it, covering NRC documents with it, and spreading it into water glasses. It wasn’t just invectives that flew from mouths of the anti-nuclear activists at Thursday’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting in Brattleboro.  One activist also threw compost at Vermont Yankee’s site vice president <name redacted>.   Carrying a bag to the front of the conference room, she threw a handful of “spent food” at <name redacted> and other Entergy executives before depositing handfuls of compost on a table where NRC officials sat. The NRC was in Brattleboro to discuss Yankee’s 2008 annual assessment, in which the agency stated the nuclear power plant was operated “in a manner that preserved public health and safety and fully met all cornerstone objectives.” The above was edited to remove inflammatory remarks by a clearly deranged activist. What really amazed me was not the ill behavior of the anti-nukes (I’ve come to expect that!), but the supportive and even jovial manner in which the “Brattelboro Reformer” the local newspaper covered the...

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