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Jan 282010

From Green Right Now Reports

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. Photo:

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. Photo:

Supporters and foes of nuclear power are mobilizing for a fight in New England. As owners of the Vermont Yankee reactor seek a 20-year extension of the plant’s operating agreement (which expires in 2012), rising levels of radioactive tritium in the groundwater surrounding the facility have made that renewal the subject of intense debate.

The plant is located in Vernon, along the Connecticut River, just north of the Massachusetts border. On Jan. 7, Vermont Yankee officials notified the state health department that samples taken from a groundwater monitoring well on site at the plant contained tritium.

Increased radiation levels indicate that reactor water is leaking into the soil, but the source of the leak has not been determined. No tritium has been found in drinking water wells or in the river, source of the reactor’s cooling water.

No such plant has been denied an extension since 1989, when Sacramento residents voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear plant, owned by their municipal utility. Privately-owned  Entergy purchased the Vermont Yankee facility in 2002.

Under the Atomic Energy Act, decisions regarding license renewal usually rest with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Vermont, however, struck a deal with Entergy that gives the state legislature oversight.

Hence, an environmental and economic issue takes on political hues as well. Already, some Vermont lawmakers have announced new opposition to the license renewal. Meanwhile, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for a “new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.”

The state health department is posting regular updates on the situation at Vermont Yankee. Governor, Jim Douglas, a longtime proponent of the facility, issued a statement saying that recent revelations “raised dark clouds of doubt” about the reactor’s safety and management. At the same time, Douglas suggested that the legislature delay any decisions on the future of the plant until more is known about the problem.

The facility, the state’s largest generator of power, began searching for tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen) under a 2007 nuclear industry initiative that came in the wake of leaks discovered at reactors in Illinois and New York. In the wake of the Jan. 7 revelations, the state has increased the frequency of testing at the elementary school across the street from the plant but has not detected higher levels.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams told The New York Times that the company was working to find a leak. “It’s a necessarily slow and methodical process,” he said.