Nuclear Expert Says Yankee Should Shut Down

02/10/10 5:51PM By John Dillon
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AP File Photo/Toby Talbot
(Host) An expert on nuclear power hired by the Legislature says Vermont Yankee should shut down voluntarily to stop its radiation leaks.

But Yankee and the state Department of Health say the public's health is not in danger from the leaks.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen said the leak of radioactive tritium at Vermont Yankee may soon be followed by releases of other, more dangerous materials if the plant keeps operating.

Gundersen - who serves as a consultant to the Legislature - told lawmakers that tritium is a form of hydrogen contained in water that's leaking from the plant toward the Connecticut River.

(Gundersen) Tritium moves like water in a stream. And the other isotopes move like stones tumbling down the river. They move at a slower rate through the soil than the tritium. So the tritium is the first warning, but it's not clear until they get close to the leak that it's the only thing in the soil.

(Dillon) Gundersen says he's concerned about other radioactive materials such as Cobalt 60 leaking into the ground. He said if the plant stops operating, tritium and these other materials will no longer escape into the environment.

(Gundersen) "Given the dilemma that Vermont Yankee's in right now, they would certainly do themselves do themselves a service to shut down and solve this problem in the eyes of Vermonters.

(Dillon) State Health Commissioner Wendy Davis says it's likely that tritium has already reached the Connecticut River in tiny amounts.

(Davis) "We can't confirm that because when it gets into the river that it's so highly diluted that it's difficult to measure it there. So, that determination is really at this point reasonably informed speculation."

(Dillon) But she says there's not currently any danger to people because the material has not been found in wells used for drinking water.

(Davis) "The amounts that we would be talking about at this time are not amounts that should pose a threat to human health... Having said that, however, we remain extremely concerned because of the high levels in which tritium has been found on the plant site, the likelihood that we may at some point encounter other radioactive materials that potentially carry a greater threat to human health.

(Dillon) A Vermont Yankee spokesman has said the plant needs to keep operating - and keep water pressure in the underground pipes - in order to find the leak. 

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it's investigating whether Yankee has violated any of its permits by releasing radioactive material.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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