Perspectives on War: safety at Vermont Yankee

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(Host) In the conclusion to this week’s series, Perspectives on War, VPR’s Susan Keese looks at efforts to secure the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, and the local response to the heightened state of alert.

(Keese) The Vermont Yankee plant has long had its supporters and detractors. But for many residents of Brattleboro and other towns in the plants ten-mile radius, its presence was relatively easy to shuffle to the back burner. All that changed with the 9-11 attacks and the new possibility of a war with Iraq.

Vermont Yankee and its new owner Entergy have spent seven million dollars on new security measures:

(Rob Williams) “There’s a new fence around the plant, additional monitoring capabilities, vantage points such as towers where security officers can see a lot more of the site. In fact the entire site and the adjacent river.”

(Keese) Rob Williams is an Entergy spokesman. He says the new fence is formidable and sophisticated:

(Williams) “There again I can’t provide too much details but it is a type of chain link fence that monitors or senses the approach of objects, such as individuals.”

(Keese) Since this month’s orange alert, the plant has been off limits to outsiders. But Jim Matteau, executive director of the Windham Regional Planning agency, says he’s seen the changes.

(Matteau) “I see a remarkable and impressive increase in security. Anyone who thinks that it would be easy to go in and out of there, I would recommend they don’t try it.”

(Keese) There are many signs that any complacency about the plant’s potential as a terrorist target belong to a more innocent past.

Since last spring, the Brattleoro Reformer has reminded its readers regularly that potassium iodide is available to anyone in the plant’s five-town evacuation area. Potassium iodide can protect against thyroid cancer, one of many potential hazards in a full scale radiological disaster. Fran de Florio directs the Brattleboro office of the Vermont health department, which is dispensing the medication. She says it’s a sensible precaution.

(De Florio) “If there were ever a release and it was over our area, you would take potassium iodide and people would be advised probably to evacuate the area.”

(Keese) DeFlorio says inquiries about potassium iodide, as well as anthrax and other threats, ebb and flow, depending on the news. But actual demands for the pills have been slow. The department has distributed 4,500 doses since April. An estimated 30,000 people would be in the area that would be vulnerable in a worst-case nuclear emergency.

Emergency response plans for a Yankee accident have been in the works for decades. Brattleboro Town Manager Jerry Remillard heads the emergency response team for the region’s largest town:

(Remillard) “And again awareness, has changed – not only from people who are opposed to nuclear energy, but the general public is now much more aware and in some cases much more nervous about what happens. So there is a lot more interest in, you know – what would you do? If you had to evacuate from a radiological emergency or some other emergency.”

(Keese) The existing evacuation plans call for most people to head north to Bellows Falls Union High School. Kids in school would be evacuated first. After being screened for radiation, parents would be reunited with their children. Remillard calls the plan a work in progress, but he says it’s essentially sound. Others disagree.

The question has become an issue in Brattleboro’s March 4 elections, where eight people are competing for two one-year Selectboard seats. Audrey Garlfied is one of several candidates who claim the plan won’t work.

(Garfield) “I can’t imagine that in the event that it’s necessary to evacuate, parents are going to leave and hope they find their children in Bellows Falls.”

(Keese) Governor Jim Douglas has called for a thorough reevaluation of the Yankee response plans. The state Emergency Management Agency is about to appoint a full-time planning coordinator for all of Windham County.

Whatever their fears, Vermonters on the street seem slow to panic:

“I would think that people who would have to be concerned are people in much more population dense areas.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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