The image of collapsed sheet metal, splintered wood and water cascading from a huge broken pipe is one that Entergy Nuclear would like to see disappear.
But that image, taken after the collapse of a 50-foot cooling tower at Vermont Yankee on Aug. 21, was blown up to poster size and displayed at Wednesday's hearing of the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change and Nuclear Energy.
Entergy is trying to make the case to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the cooling tower collapse, and an emergency shutdown of the plant caused by a stuck steam valve on Aug. 30, have no bearing on Vermont Yankee's safety and should not be taken into account when the NRC considers extending the nuclear plant's license past 2012.
All one has to do is look at that image of water gushing onto a pile of debris, and Entergy's argument falls apart. That has not stopped Entergy from trying to convince everyone that the 35-year-old reactor is perfectly safe and should be allowed to run until at least 2032.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., showed NRC Chairman Dale Klein the image of the cooling tower collapse and asked, "If you were living in southern Vermont, or New Hampshire, or northern Massachusetts, would you have confidence in the NRC after this series of events?"
"I would hope they have confidence in the NRC," Klein said.
"They don't," replied Sanders. "How can you look at that photograph and say you're not concerned?"
Because of the very real feeling that the NRC functions as a rubber stamp for the nuclear industry, Sanders has introduced legislation that would give states the right to ask for independent safety assessments at all of the nation's nuclear reactors.
The NRC has dismissed this idea, saying that its oversight is superior to any independent safety assessment. Given the track record of the NRC and its well-documented laxity in enforcement of the rules, we would put our trust in an outsider's inspection.
While the NRC is apparently seeking more information about the cooling tower collapse, as well as the inspection records for the towers, we would bet that Entergy will receive a slap of the wrist, a moderate fine, a brief period of increased NRC oversight and permission to keep the reactor open for another 20 years.
Vermont Yankee has functioned safely for 35 years. Its employees have worked hard to keep it functioning safely. But there comes a point where aging machinery becomes too expensive to fix.
That's why Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine, and Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Mass., both were shut down. The cost of upgrading and maintaining the reactors cost more than the value of the electricity they produced.
The economic equation for keeping Vermont Yankee open hasn't yet shifted in that direction. Entergy is making a nice profit running the reactor in Vernon. When the day comes that it is no longer profitable, they will shut it down.
The question we have is, what will be the circumstances that prompt it and who will be stuck with the bill? We frankly do not trust Entergy nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make decisions with the safety of this region in mind.
Is Vermont Yankee safe? Let's bring in people without ties to the NRC and Entergy to look at the plant objectively and give us an answer.