Nuke Workers Didn’t Wait for Bomb Squad
In November, workers at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant came across an unidentified object in the shipping and receiving area called the South Forty: a short length of pipe capped at both ends. What was it? Nobody knew.
The police were called, and told the workers to wait for bomb experts and not mess around with the pipe—instead of which the workers, exhibiting technical savvy comparable to that of Fat Albert and his gang, fastened a string to the pipe with duct tape, then pulled the string to see if the pipe would blow up. The good news: it didn’t.
But is that any way to deal with an unidentified object at a nuclear power plant before someone figures out whether it’s a bomb or not?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now announced that it hit Vermont Yankee with a safety violation demerit because of the pipe incident.
“That is not an appropriate way to deal with that sort of situation, and we’ve made that clear to Entergy,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the northeastern region. “They’ve put in place changes to make sure that doesn’t occur again, and other changes are planned.”
Sheehan and Rob Williams, a spokesman for Entergy, the operators of the plant, told the press the incident posed no danger to the public or to workers. We asked Sheehan to explain.
“Vermont Yankee encompasses several hundred acres. This was on the southern end of the site, away from any of the buildings used for power production,” he said. “That’s why it didn’t threaten workers or the general public. In the end this turned out to be a well pump that was being disposed of, but they did not know that.”
The pipe incident has pointed up a question anti-nuclear activists in the region near Vermont Yankee have been asking for some time: how carefully will the plant’s operators manage the reactor in its last year of life?
For the past two months, Entergy has been in a somewhat confusing conversation with the NRC, asking for the relaxation of certain operating standards managers usually ask for when a plant is known to be closing. Entergy, for example, has told the NRC that because it intends to close the plant, it will not submit a plan for the addition of expensive new safety equipment the agency has required since the meltdown at the Fukushima plant in Japan three years ago.
But so far the NRC has refused to relax the requirements on the grounds that—though unofficially the agency expects that Vermont Yankee will be shuttered next December—the company is not yet legally bound to shut down the plant. In other words, says the NRC, Entergy can’t have it both ways, getting procedural concessions that go with closing the plant while hanging on to the option of keeping it open for an unspecified time.
As Entergy prepares to close Vermont Yankee, the future of nuclear power in the U.S. is becoming more uncertain, the options for the industry more polarized. Forbes magazine has noted that of five plants that last year saw the handwriting on the wall for closure, three (San Onofre in California, Kewaunee in Wisconsin and Crystal River in Florida) have shut down; only Oyster Creek (New Jersey) and Vermont Yankee are still open.
Next to be shuttered, Forbes predicts, are three more Entergy reactors (Indian Point near Manhattan, Fitzpatrick in upstate New York and Pilgrim in Plymouth, Mass.) and three others: Ginna, near Rochester, N.Y.; Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, in an area with rich natural gas deposits; and Davis Besse in Ohio.
On the other hand, the NRC has said that it anticipates applications for license renewals that would keep some plants operating for 60 years and beyond. In a paper dated Jan. 31, 2014, the NRC’s executive director of operations, Mark Satorius, outlined a new rulemaking process to accommodate such applications, one that would “require licensees to report aging-related degradation and maintain the effectiveness of aging-management activities.”•
Bill Banning Restraints on Pregnant Inmates Passes
A few weeks after Gov. Deval Patrick called on the state Legislature to pass a bill banning the use of restraints on pregnant inmates, lawmakers did just that. Last week, the Mass. House unanimously approved the proposal. The Senate had approved a version of the law the previous week, also unanimously.
The new law would prohibit the use of restraints on pregnant inmates after the first trimester and during a laboring woman’s transport to the hospital, delivery, and postpartum recovery. Exceptions would be allowed if a correctional officer determines that the woman is a flight risk or poses a threat to herself or others; in such cases, though, the restraints could not be put on the woman’s waist and leg. (See “Born Free,” Dec. 31, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
The bill also sets standards for prenatal and postpartum care for inmates.
In February, Patrick filed emergency regulations banning temporarily the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in county Houses of Correction (the practice is already banned in state prisons), but urged legislators to make the rule permanent by passing the broader bill. (See “Efforts to Limit Restraints on Pregnant Inmates Move Forward,” Feb. 26, 2014, www.valleyadvocate.com.)
“To have both chambers pass it within a week was amazing,” Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, told the Advocate the day after the House vote. NARAL was part of a coalition—a group that included the ACLU and, from the Valley, the Prison Birth Project, Prison Policy Initiative and Real Cost of Prisons Project—that had lobbied for the bill.
Similar bills had been filed in previous legislative sessions but failed to come to a vote. Amundson credited this year’s success to an effective organizing effort that reached out to lawmakers, the media and the public. “We built a really strong coalition of really strong advocates and did a lot of legwork,” she said. “The issue is really shocking, Once people realize this happens, there’s a lot of outrage.”
While supporters are celebrating the legislative victory, “we’re not across the finish line yet,” Amundson noted. The Senate and House versions of the bill still need to be reconciled, then the resulting bill needs to be signed by Patrick.
“I think our real challenge is everyone’s real challenge right now, at this point in the session: making sure getting a good policy trumps the politics in getting a good bill to the governor’s desk,” Amundson said. She’s also eager to see the law signed before May 20, when the emergency regulations filed by Patrick expire.•
Reining In the NSA
The Obama administration is promoting legislation that would end the mass collection of phone metadata by the National Security Agency, but still allow the government to use such data in the course of investigating suspected terrorists.
Under the terms of the proposal, to access data related to phone calls, the NSA would be required to seek court orders from the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Court on a case-by-case, number-by-number basis. If it’s successful, the NSA would then be able to compel private phone companies to search their records and share the results, as well as any data that is collected afterwards.
The legislation would also lessen the number of “jumps” (investigations of other numbers associated with the number in question) that the NSA could legally make from three to two, and would not force private companies to keep their records any longer than the 18 months currently required under federal law, rather than for the five years that the NSA keeps them.
An unnamed administration official quoted in the Wall Street Journal said that the proposed program would cover cellphones as well as landlines, and thus be “more comprehensive” than the one currently in place.
A number of competing proposals have also been put forward in the House in recent days.
The End Bulk Collection Act of 2014, put together by the House Intelligence Committee, is quite similar to the one suggested by the Obama administration in that phone records would still remain in the hands of private companies. But it would only require the approval of the U.S. Attorney General and director of national intelligence to access phone records, while judges would be tasked with approving the standards used in the collection process after the fact—a difference the Committee says is necessary because of the urgency of gathering intelligence.
The bill would also change the standard of “reasonable articulable suspicion” that would make such a search legally acceptable from association with terrorism to association with “a suspected agent of a foreign power.”
Another piece of legislation, from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), would impose more dramatic changes, including banning the mass collection of records of any sort, requiring a judge’s approval for any request for such records from private companies, and stipulating that any inquiry be connected to an ongoing terrorist investigation. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont is a sponsor of that legislation.•
Opposition Grows to Fossil Fuel Infrastructure
As Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. contacts property owners in Western Massachusetts about allowing a natural gas pipeline to cross their land, two climate action movements are becoming more and more active in opposing that pipeline, which is part of what Tennessee Gas calls the Northeast Expansion Project. The pipeline would bring gas extracted by fracking from eastern New York State to the Lowell area in eastern Massachusetts.
In Berkshire County, the 350 Massachusetts Berkshire Node formed late last month. Its name comes from the 350 movement founded by global climate change activist Bill McKibben, and it’s a chapter of 350 Massachusetts, or 350MA. The state organization has primarily concentrated on getting Massachusetts to divest from fossil fuel companies and keeping new fossil fuel infrastructure out of the state, including pipelines and new fossil fuel power plants. Stopping the Tennessee Gas pipeline from coming into Massachusetts from the west is the Berkshire Node’s immediate focus.
Also gathering momentum is Students for a Just and Stable Future, which is dealing with climate issues on many fronts, from opposing the Tennessee Gas pipeline to supporting students who are demanding that major universities in the state—Harvard, Tufts, UMass—sell off their investments in fossil fuel. On the eve of a rally planned for March 31, Students for a Just and Stable Future wrote the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick to request that it step up policies that retard global warming.
“Climate change is already turning western states into dustbowls while strengthening the devastating power of storms,” the students wrote. “Drinking water supplies are shrinking while sea levels are rising. Continued inaction robs more and more of our generation of the chance to survive.
“There is still time to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis, but this window of opportunity is rapidly shrinking. The International Energy Agency has determined that we only have until 2017 to stop building new coal, oil and gas infrastructure before we are ‘locked in’ by the lifetime emissions of these projects to extremely dangerous levels of warming. … Building more power plants, pipelines and export terminals in Massachusetts will result in either billions of dollars of stranded assets or the creation of a society destabilized by unpredictable weather, food and water shortages, and extreme climate disasters.”
A vocal member of Students for a Just and Stable Future at UMass-Amherst is Varsini Prakash, who helped organize the XL Dissent demonstration in Washington, D.C. March 2. That day some 1,200 students from more than 100 colleges across the country marched to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, and 398 were arrested.
“The Patrick administration is finally hearing students who are looking for changes in the way we address energy issues,” said Prakash, who added that with Tennessee Gas trying to create a route for its pipeline through Berkshire and Franklin counties, “Massachusetts folks are being put on the front line. But folks out here are the right ones to fight this.”• —SK