As the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant continues to decommission, so too does the process of notifying nearby communities in case of an emergency. The long-standing emergency planning zone will shrink starting Tuesday, April 19.
Vermont Yankee’s Emergency Planning Zone covers some or all of 18 communities in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts that are within 10 miles of the Vernon reactor. Such zones were implemented for all nuclear plants around the country following the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
But come April 19, Vermont Yankee will collapse the zone to just the plant’s boundary. With the reactor no longer operating, Vermont Yankee spokesperson Marty Cohn says the chance of an accident is greatly diminished.
“In the worst case scenario, let’s say there’s some leak in the spent fuel pool, well, water leaking out of the spent fuel pool would take days to occur. And we’ve got so many backup systems to replenish the water that that’s why the emergency boundary is reduced to the site,” says Cohn.
The smaller zone will also mean reduced staffing at the plant. Cohn says 97 workers will lose their jobs come early May, leaving the plant with about 150 employees. That’s down from more than 600 workers in December 2014 when Vermont Yankee stopped producing power. The new protocol has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but not without objection from state officials.
“While there is fuel in the spent fuel pool, there are a number of risks that still remain,” says Erica Bornemann of Vermont’s Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.
Bornemann says the changes will also affect all manner of emergency planning, from notification to evacuation, both inside and outside the plant site. Sandra Kosterman, who lives on a street that marks the southern edge of the zone in Greenfield, is concerned she won’t be notified of any problem at the plant.
“Even though the plant is not producing electricity, there’s still danger,” says Kosterman.
She wants the 10-mile zone to remain in place at least until all the radioactive spent fuel is moved from pools to more stable dry-cask storage. Vermont Yankee says that’s expected to be completed by 2020. But Kosterman says she’s not going to feel safe in the meantime.
“We live in an age where there’s terrorism, where anybody could do something up there to cause a problem. And there’s human error, there has been human error at Vermont Yankee for as long as I can remember,” says Kosterman.
The smaller zone will also mean less money coming from Vermont Yankee to local and state emergency planners.
Bob Strahan, Greenfield’s fire chief and emergency management director, shows me the city’s emergency operations center, which is located in the firehouse basement.
“If you look around the room, everything from the monitors on the wall to the refrigerator to the desks, chairs, radios ... telephones as well, all from Vermont Yankee,” says Strahan.
That includes the pellet-fueled generator that powers the building. Strahan says the city has been preparing for the funding cut by saving enough money to get through the next couple of years without impacting taxpayers. Time enough, he says, for the public to consider how to fund emergency operations into the future.
Strahan also says the city is prepared to handle whatever emergency may occur, at the plant or elsewhere, alerting residents via a Reverse 911 system that sends messages by phone or e-mail, and finally sending police officers with bull horns out on the streets.
In the meantime, communities and residents have to decide what to do with the network of three dozen sirens and the 7,500 tone-alarm radios that were distributed by Vermont Yankee.
“The people that presently have them are welcome to keep them,” says Mike Bucossi, fire chief and co-director of emergency management in Brattleboro, which is about seven miles from the reactor.
“Though they won’t necessarily be used for Yankee anymore, they can receive severe weather warnings and anything like that on them. The sirens; the municipality has chosen to have Vermont Yankee remove them,” says Bucossi.
He says more modern methods, such as the statewide VT Alert system, have been set up to notify the public of any event. Besides, he says, sirens are impractical for another important reason.
“People were so accustomed to them being labeled the Vermont Yankee sirens or VY sirens. And every time they would sound, people would think there’s a nuclear accident. And we could never — I know we could never get past that,” says Bucossi.
Out of the 18 communities in the soon-to-be former emergency zone, only six have opted to keep the sirens: Gil and Leyden, Massachusetts, Chesterfield, Hinsdale and Winchester, New Hampshire, and the town of Vernon, where Vermont Yankee is located.
Kari Njiiri is a senior news reporter at New England Public Radio, where this story was originally posted.