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

A radioactive leak in Vermont and an exploding transformer in New York raise old nuclear concerns.

2 min read
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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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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