The unfolding nuclear disaster in Japan has prompted Sen. Bernie Sanders to ramp up his opposition to the federal government issuing a new permit for a 40-year-old reactor in his home state of Vermont.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a 20-year license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., just a day before the massive earthquake and tsunami that crippled an identical reactor in Japan.
The disaster in Japan severely damaged that country’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, touching off a massive radiation risk and the potential for a much greater atomic crisis.
The NRC’s Vermont Yankee decision was temporarily put on hold Tuesday, but Sanders, a left-leaning independent, used a briefing for senators on Wednesday about the Japan disaster to ask NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko for a more serious re-examination of the future of the Vermont reactor.
“I can tell you the people of Vermont before the terrible accident and earthquake in Japan were very concerned about the safety of that plant,” Sanders told Jaczko. “I am absolutely confident in telling you that they are far, far more concerned today. The idea that a plant which has had a number of problems in recent years would be kept open for another 20 years is something that most people in Vermont do not agree with,” Sanders adds.
Any decision by the federal government on future licensing of Vermont Yankee should await “a thoughtful response to the tragedy in Japan and to make absolutely certain that nothing like that ever happens in the United States of America,” the senator says.
Sanders noted that the Fukushima reactors in Japan are the same design as General Electric boiling water reactors currently operating at 23 plants throughout the United States, including Vermont Yankee. He also pointed out that the Vermont Senate voted to shut down Vermont Yankee next year when a state operating permit expires.
The NRC’s Jaczko says there would be “a systematic and methodical look at all of the plants” in the United States to see if there are lessons to be learned from what happened in Japan. He suggested, however, that licensing would not hinge on that review.
Sanders says a majority of Vermonters don’t want to see the reactor in Vernon continue operation.
“The idea that a plant which has had a number of problems in recent years would be kept open for another 20 years is something that most people in Vermont do not agree with,” he says.
Although the potential for a nuclear disaster in Vermont might be “unthinkable,” the unthinkable can happen, Sanders says.
“People think that a terrible event is unthinkable until the day after that event occurs. We have seen it with 9/11,” he says. “Unthinkable that one of the largest buildings in America would be attacked by terrorists. Unthinkable that thousands of people would die in Hurricane Katrina. Unthinkable that BP would have an environmentally damaging leak in the Gulf Coast. Unthinkable that Japan would have the terrible earthquake that it had with all of the reactors now having problems. Unthinkable, unthinkable, unthinkable until the day after it happens.”
The exchange occurred during a special meeting of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to look into ramifications for the United States from the nuclear reactor crisis in Japan.
Sanders’ opposition to Vermont Yankee comes amid concern expressed by an another lawmaker, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), that the United States may not be prepared to respond to a major nuclear disaster here.
Scott Nance is the publisher of the news site The Washington Current, formerly known as On The Hill. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.