The Unthinkable

“People think that a terrible event is unthinkable until the day after that event occurs. We have seen it with 9/11. Unthinkable that one of the largest buildings in America would be attacked by terrorists. Unthinkable that thousands of people would die in Hurricane Katrina. Unthinkable that BP would have an environmentally damaging leak in the Gulf Coast. Unthinkable that Japan would have the terrible earthquake that it had with all of the reactors now having problems. Unthinkable, unthinkable, unthinkable until the day after it happens,” Sen. Bernie sanders said Wednesday.  His cautionary litany came at a hearing on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami that caused a crisis at four side-by-side reactors that have been out of control since their cooling systems were knocked out. 

Citing the nuclear emergency in Japan, Sanders pressed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman to re-evaluate whether to issue a new permit for Vermont Yankee.

One day before the massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, the commission okayed a 20-year license extension for the Vernon, Vt., reactor that is identical to the crippled Japanese plant. That decision was temporarily put on hold yesterday, but Sanders used a briefing for senators about the Japan disaster to ask NRC Chairman Gregory B. Jaczko for a more serious re-examination of the future of 40-year-old Vermont Yankee reactor.

“I can tell you the people of Vermont before the terrible accident and earthquake in Japan were very concerned about the safety of that plant,” Sanders told Jaczko. “I am absolutely confident in telling you that they are far, far more concerned today,” Sanders said.

“The idea that a plant which has had a number of  problems in recent years would be kept open for another 20 years is something that most people in Vermont do not agree with,” he added. Any decision by the federal government on future licensing of Vermont Yankee should await “a thoughtful response to the tragedy in Japan and to make absolutely certain that nothing like that ever happens in the United States of America,” the senator said.

Sanders noted that the Fukushima reactors in Japan are the same design as General Electric boiling water reactors currently operating at 23 plants throughout the United States, including Vermont Yankee. He also pointed out that the Vermont Senate voted to shut down Vermont Yankee next year when a state operating permit expires. 

The NRC’s Jaczko said there would be “a systematic and methodical look at all of the plants” in the United States to see if there are lessons to be learned from what is happening in Japan. He suggested that licensing would not hinge on that review.