Will the Vermont Yankee Leak Throw a Wrench in Obama's Nuclear Future?

There seems to be a pattern here. Just when President Obama expresses his support for an issue, said issue turns to ca-ca.

Less than one month ago in his State of the Union address, the Rookie President read the following from TOTUS:

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. (Applause.)

So less than a month later, a monitoring well near the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has detected a leak of radioactive tritium. The apparent source of the leak is some underground piping that plant managers didn’t know existed.


Vermont Yankee currently produces 30 percent of the state’s electricity. It is producing under a 40-year license that is eligible for a 20-year renewal in 2012, but the license renewal may now be in jeopardy. The plant’s operator, New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., had planned to spin off Yankee and four of its other nuke plants into a new company to be called Enexus Energy Corp., but the leak may scotch those plans, too.
Vermont Yankee radioactive leak causes many complications for Entergy

On Wednesday, the Vermont Legislature will vote on whether to extend the plant’s license for 20 years, or require Entergy to shut it down in 2012. Lawmakers surveyed in recent days have said they expect the extension to be voted down even though closing the plant would result in higher electricity rates for customers. And the Burlington Free Press advocated closing the plant, which provides 30 percent of the state’s power, in an editorial in Sunday’s paper. …

Michael Dworkin, a former chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board who now teaches at Vermont Law School, said it’s not the tritium leak that is the problem, it’s the way Entergy has conducted itself. Before it became clear that underground pipes at the plant were leaking, company officials had testified under oath on several occasions that there were no underground pipes, suggesting either that officials lied or didn’t understand the plant they were operating.

Nothing in the above article adresses the actual amount of tritium leaked, or its potential threat. Here, though, is a seemingly intelligent blogger who can put it into perspective:

I did a Google News search on the words “tritium leak Vermont” that produced 113 results, several with associated images of protesters carrying signs advocating an immediate plant shutdown. I read some of the articles and realized that they were stories about a few liters of water in the ground at the site of a nuclear power plant that each contained 0.000000028 curies of tritium. That is just 2.9 trillionths of a gram (2.9 x 10^-12) of tritium. For comparison, every liter of water contains about 111 grams of hydrogen, so the portion of hydrogen that is a tritium isotope is incredibly small – just 1 out of every 2.6 x 10^14 atoms.

The breathless calls for a shutdown of Vermont Yankee due to the quantity of tritium discovered is not just a tempest in a tea pot, it is more like vividly describing a swirl in a water droplet under a microscope and believing it should instill the same level of concern generated by Hurricane Katrina.

Now, I don’t necessarily buy the guy’s comparison to an oil spill, but still …