Renaissance Hiccups: What Do Recent Nuclear Reactor Incidents Tell Us?

The nuclear proponents will say that the system is working. Two separate incidents at the Vermont Yankee and Indian Point nuclear plants on resulted in shutdowns of both sites, but authorities in both cases were confident that the problems posed no threat to the public. And hey, that's the idea, right? Catch things before they really do become a problem. Let's take a look.

The Vermont Yankee plant, in Vernon, Vermont, closed down because a routine check found a leak from a welded over pipe in the feedwater system; this is a closed loop that brings water to cool the reactor. But this wasn't just regular water dripping at about 60 drops per minute from the pipe; it was radioactive water. According to an update from Entergy, who owns the plant (and whose Vermont Yankee website can be found on the somewhat ironically domained safecleanreliable.com), the pipe was in a section of the system that could not be repaired while the plant remained active, so they made a "conservative decision" to pull it offline. Since Sunday, the pipe has apparently been repaired and the reactors were being powered back up and reconnected to the grid on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Buchanan, New York, one of two main transformers exploded on Sunday evening and caused an automatic shutdown of the second of three reactors at Indian Point (pictured). Importantly, these transformers are located outside of any area with nuclear material nearby, so the all-clear report that sounded just a few hours later was undoubtedly justified.

In a statement from -- oh look, Entergy owns this one too! (And Indian Point has a similarly hilarious website, safesecurevital.org.) Anyway, they claim everything is now functioning as normal; nothing to see here, apparently.

And yes, neither of these incidents seem to have been particularly dangerous, and the response systems in place do appear to be working as they should. The bigger issue here is that these aren't necessarily isolated problems. Vermont Yankee became the first plant in more than two decades to be shuttered (well, after 2012, at least) by the public when the state senate voted against renewing its license. The reason? Radioactive tritium leaks. Entergy reported last month that tritium levels are low and that there is no danger of water contamination, but the problem highlights the fact that our nuclear infrastructure is not getting any younger.

Whether or not the next incident actually is a threat is almost beside the point; multi-billion dollar loan guarantees will be a hard political sell if the public keeps hearing about radioactive water leaks and explosions. If the old plants can't keep quiet for a while, the nuclear renaissance might be dead in the water.

(Image via Daniel Case)

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