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Between the Lines: Too Late to Monitor--Or Not?

Massachusetts will test for radioactivity in seven towns near Vermont Yankee.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Better late than never, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Bureau of Environmental Health has committed to a radiation monitoring program for the seven Massachusetts towns in the 10-mile Emergency Preparedness Zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt., near Brattleboro. Some samples may be taken beyond that area for purposes of comparison, the DPH says. The state of Vermont has had a monitoring program for the area near the plant since 1972, but Massachusetts has not had one.

Under the program, vegetation, agricultural products, milk, fish and water in the EPZ area that extends into Massachusetts will be sampled every three months. That includes water from the Connecticut River, which flows south through Massachusetts from the plant site in Vermont. The sampling will begin April 1, less than a year before the plant is scheduled to shut down if its owners are not successful in their bid to get it relicensed for another 20 years.

The reactor has already been in operation for 39 years, and its power output is 120 percent of the output it was designed for. In recent years it has suffered a cooling tower collapse, a fire, numerous internal leaks, and external leaks of radioactive tritium. After it became public information that the tritium leaks existed and that VY officials had given the state inaccurate information related to them, the Vermont State Senate voted last year not to allow the plant to keep operating past its scheduled shutdown date in 2012, though it's not clear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, if it were determined to keep the plant open, would not overrule that vote.

A Massachusetts state radiation monitoring program has already been in operation at the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth; a Massachusetts Department of Public Health report for 1978-1986 called the Southeastern Massachusetts Health Study found a 400 percent increase in the incidence of leukemia in the population downwind of the plant during a five-year period "after fuel was known to have leaked excess radioactivity." (Today, Pilgrim, like Vermont Yankee, is owned by Entergy of Louisiana, but in those days Pilgrim's owner was Boston Edison.) Historically, Vermont Yankee was considered a better managed plant than Pilgrim, which may account for the lack of a monitoring program in this part of the state.

According to Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health, the decision to begin such a program was not made because of the recent tritium leaks at VY, but because of a meeting with legislators and community advocates from the seven Massachusetts towns near the plant—Northfield, Leyden, Gill, Greenfield, Bernardston, Colrain and Warwick—in 2007. The program is starting several years later than that, Condon said in an e-mail to the Advocate, because "DPH worked to redirect resources from other accounts to provide the laboratory support necessary and to hire a consultant to help design the sampling. The economic decline during the past two fiscal years caused us to modify the redirection several times."

After 39 years, will a program that may embrace only one year of the plant's life be useful? It's easy to say that the state's effort comes too late in the game. On the other hand, sampling in Massachusetts may uncover information that will help inform a final decision about the plant's relicensing.

And in the long term, the data harvested by the state may be a useful addition to our knowledge of the effects of nuclear power plants on their surroundings, and the factors that affect the health of people in the seven towns."

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