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PSR Board Member Dr. Ira Helfand Speaks Out Against License Renewal of Vermont Yankee Reactor

February 23, 2010

PSR Board Member Dr. Ira Helfand spoke at a teach-in to over 300 people, including members of the Vermont legislature, in Brattleboro, VT on February 21, 2010 to discuss the public health impacts of the Vermont Yankee reactor. The Vermont Yankee reactor was under consideration for a 20-year license extension, which was voted down overwhelmingly (26-4) on February 24, 2010 by the Vermont Senate.

Relicensing of the Vermont Yankee reactor was mired in controversy over various safety and health hazards.  In 2007, part of the cooling tower collapsed as a result of corrosion, leaking thousands of gallons of cooling water.  In January 2010, it was discovered that underground pipes, which the utility Entergy had denied existed last year, have been leaking radioactive tritium at alarming rates. Wells around Vermont Yankee are testing at up to 2.4 million picocuries of tritium per liter, or 120 times the “permissible” dose and 240,000 times the background level of tritium in fresh water.  At least 27 reactors, one-fourth of the operating reactors in the United States, are known to be leaking tritium into groundwater.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen that can be incorporated into water or into organic molecules like DNA.  Like other forms of radiation, it is particularly dangerous to children and fetuses.  Tritiated water can cross the placenta, which could lead to birth defects, miscarriages, or cancer.  Public health officials in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts also worry that a large plume of tritium has already contaminated the Connecticut River.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has claimed that these leaks do not represent a threat to public health and safety, because the level of radioactivity will never exceed drinking water standards offsite and therefore the public is protected.  The National Academies have concluded, however, that any exposure to radiation increases an individual’s risk of cancer (linear no-threshold model).  In addition, tritium standards do not take into account the fact that tritium acts like water in the body.   

Dr. Helfand cited proliferation, routine radioactive emissions, catastrophic accidents, and waste issues as other threats to human health posed by Vermont Yankee and other reactors.

“Even if the reactor were not leaking tritium, the reactor should be closed.  For more than three decades, PSR has said that nuclear reactors are dangerous to public health. Vermont Yankee should be closed,” he concluded.

Vermont is the only state in the US that has a say in reactor relicensing; in other states, it is solely the decision of the federal NRC.  According to Vermont law, the state legislature must agree to the license extension before the state Public Service Board decides whether to issue a new state license. Vermont state senators are set to vote on February 24, 2010 on a bill that would authorize the board to complete its process.

Vermont legislators voted to shut down the reactor as scheduled by March 2012, and with this tremendous vote have delivered a stinging rebuke of the myth of ‘clean and safe’ nuclear energy.

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