With Town Meeting only days away, at least 38 towns will be discussing whether the Legislature should approve the continued operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which is trying to get re-licensed in 2012. Three issues will predominate: the cost of people's utility bills, finding alternative energy sources, and the impact of its continued operation on Vermonters' health and safety. The last issue rarely gets discussed, ostensibly because it falls under the sole jurisdiction of a federal agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But there's another reason, one that involves The Vermont Department of Health (VDPH).
This past year, Vermonters learned that the Health Department had failed to contact (as required by law) the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules about a change in the way it evaluated low level radiation emissions at the plant. By avoiding the Rules Committee, VDPH also avoided public hearings. Had the hearings occurred, an important issue of public health would have emerged: Once the plant increased its power output (beginning in 2006) by 20 percent, radiation levels at the plant's fence line also increased, surpassing acceptable legal limits. This could be serious. The department's own 2007 Surveillance Report on Yankee acknowledged that "ionizing radiation is a known human carcinogen…With radiation exposure, it is assumed that no dose is without risk."
When public hearings finally occurred last fall, the Rules Committee asked Dr. William Irwin of VDPH: "Who advised you not to contact us?" His response was barely audible: "Counsel." Afterwards, I asked Dr. Irwin if "counsel" meant the Vermont Attorney General's office. Answer: "Yes." Later that afternoon, I handed his counsel a request for information under Vermont's Public Records Law about this matter. I also asked how much money the Health Department received from Entergy, Yankee's corporate owner. Turns out VDPH received $93,784.64 in 2006 and $61,615.36 in 2007 to "reimburse costs related to the Oak Ridge Associates Universities study." Oak Ridge is the very research facility - funded by the nuclear industry - that came up with the new formula, or "conversion factor," for measuring radiation. It made Yankee's radiation levels appear to be in compliance with acceptable legal limits, when, in fact, they exceeded them.
Was there any independent oversight of how the Department of Health applied Oak Ridge's supposedly independent assessment? Legislators will be looking into this, as well as information provided by Kathleen Krevetski, a Rutland nurse, that Oak Ridge's "new" formula for measuring radiation is actually based on an outdated standard which was withdrawn in 2001 because no formal review of its accuracy had been performed.
Meanwhile, the aging plant, renowned for its collapsed water tower and numerous incidents of radiation leaks (including thousands of gallons of radioactive water from a leaking valve, which has still not been fixed) hums along, keeping Entergy's reported revenues of $5 million a month rolling in.
When I asked Governor Douglas last fall during an election debate to describe the health risks from low level radiation, he dodged the question, as if cancer was a dirty word.
In fact, data obtained from the VDPH by nurse Krevetski shows the incident rate of thyroid cancer among Vermont women alone has increased from 4.8 in 1996 to 19.5 in 2005 - an increase the Department acknowledged was "statistically significant." One can only imagine what that amount might be from 2006 on, when radiation levels started increasing. As VDPH states, "Thyroid cancers … are of particular interest because increased risk may be associated with excess radiation exposure." Remarkably, the VDPH 2008 report states, "There is no evidence of excessive radiation exposure" in the geographic areas around Vermont Yankee.
Perhaps not "excessive." But what about "excess" radiation exposure?
What makes low-level radiation so insidious is the fact that it is a) invisible and b) travels by wind currents. None of us is immune, despite what the VDPH or Entergy would have you believe. As the debate over Vermont Yankee heats up, it's time we put the health risks to Vermonters front and center.