A Tour Inside Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant
By Lauren Frohne – UNC’s Powering A Nation
Powering a Nation’s reporters spent about two weeks in communities with nuclear power plants asking questions, getting opinions and weighing the facts to gain a better perspective on the nuclear issue. Hoping to see the inner-workings of a plant, they had an opportunity to tour Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vermont. Larry Smith, the plant’s official tour guide, agreed to show them around.
Not only were the reporters allowed to tour the plant, they were also permitted to bring cameras. But there were things that could not be photographed.
Namely, it was not possible to take pictures of any of the security measures implemented at the plant, including the perimeter fences, cameras and screening equipment. Since security is such an important part of a plant, the reporters first had to go through a screening similar to what you might experience at an airport. The security guard went through camera bags thoroughly. Then they received visitor badges, scanned their palms, and entered the plant through a tall, subway-like turnstile.
The first building inside the plant was a staging area where a plant worker (the only one the reporters saw until they exited the reactor building) was in charge of reading visitor responsibilities and setting up radiation monitors.
Reporters wore two monitors: one provided a live reading of their exposure while in the plant, the other recorded a more precise measurement to be mailed to them later. Also equipped with a hard hat, safety glasses and earplugs, the reporters began the tour.
The heat, the noise
As the journalists entered the reactor building, they were struck by the noise. A constant, brain-scrambling hum. At times, it got so loud they could only communicate with Larry through hand gestures. The turbine room was the loudest place in the entire plant. The heat was difficult to adjust to, as well. It was 100 degrees or hotter throughout the entire reactor building. Some places featured a “Do Not Linger” label in the hottest spots because the heat was a result of radioactive steam.
For the most part, the plant is a concrete building with all kinds of pipes and valves, slate-gray containers and warning signs. Few people occupied the premises. From what Larry told reporters, the plant bustles with workers more during their scheduled outage periods, which occur every 18 months and lasts about 30 days. During that time, the reactor shuts down and contractors come to the plant to perform maintenance and swap out fuel bundles. They recently completed their outage month, so the plant was mostly deserted during our visit.
The highlight of the tour was seeing the spent fuel pool. Spent fuel pools are where the majority of the spent fuel from a plant’s entire operational history is kept. Vermont Yankee houses about 38 years of spent fuel. Spent fuel is still extremely radioactive, but anti-proliferation laws prevent plants from reprocessing it and using more of their radioactive energy. The bundles are kept in pools that are about 40 feet deep (about the height of a four-story building) and enclosed in several feet of concrete. The water keeps the radiation contained and the fuel cool.
The pool is deep and serene. It moves gently. What at first seemed like a reflecting pool eventually revealed hundreds of canisters of spent fuel rods. Standing over so much radioactive material left journalists with a bizarre feeling: a little nerve-wracking, a little daring. Larry was the most nervous, though. He reiterated that people aren’t usually allowed to get that close to the pool for that long, let alone with a camera.
The “clean side”
The pool was the last stop on the tour of the interior of the plant. The reporters weaved their way back through the tunnels and stairways and reinforced doors back to the staging area, which also serves as the the radiation screening area.
On their way out, their possessions had to go through a radiation detector, and then placed on the “clean side.” The “clean side” was literally on the other side of the small turnstile through which we had entered the reactor building.
Then it was the reporters’ turn. They had to stand in two different machines that scanned their entire bodies for radiation. These machines require you to stand still while a female, British voice counts down from 10 or 15. Despite some small exposure, the journalists were deemed acceptably clean.
Before the crew explored the exterior of the plant, one of the reporters would make a little mistake that would later have them hustled out of the plant.
The dry storage
The first stop outside was the above-ground, dry cask storage. These five giant, concrete and steel casks were assembled because the spent fuel pool is reaching capacity and Vermont Yankee anticipated being able to send some of their radioactive waste to Yucca Mountain. That plan has now been canceled. Many plants in the U.S. will need to resort to dry cask storage soon as many are reaching capacity in their spent fuel pools as well. The storage and transport of radioactive nuclear waste is a major, hot-button issue in the nuclear debate. The thought of having nuclear waste, which will continue to be radioactive for over 100,000 years, sitting out in a cask (that has a registered use of only 100 years) with nowhere to go, is somewhat unsettling.
Next, the crew visited the low-level radioactive waste that is kept in large, steel shipping containers. This includes things like papers, office supplies, radiation suits and other things that might have been exposed to radiation at some point. This is also radioactive matter that is sitting out, waiting to ship, with nowhere to go. Like many plants in the U.S., Vermont Yankee used to send this low-level waste to a waste storage facility in Barnwell, South Carolina. However, this facility recently stopped accepting waste from the 14 states from which it used to accept waste. Plant Vogtle also has this same issue to deal with.
The last stop was the location where the plant takes in water from the Connecticut River. Most nuclear power plants are positioned on a major river because of the huge amount of water required to cool the process. Larry said that this reactor uses 365,000 gallons of water a minute.
Setting up a last shot of the river’s rushing water, the reporters were approached by a security guard with a machine gun slung around his back. The armed guard escorted them out as Larry speculated nervously about the quick exit. He told them how they had been watched from the very moment they entered the plant.
Fortunately, it was an innocent mistake. When they were turning in radiation monitors, one of them discarded her visitor badge. Without a badge, she was breaching the plant’s security protocol, which requires all visitors to carry proper identification. The crew hustled back to the welcome center.
On the way, they convinced Larry to let them linger around the cooling towers to shoot video, while he talked nervously with his supervisor on the phone. Their towers are induced-draft cooling towers, not the traditional hyperboloid towers so often associated with nuclear power. The plant, which is across the street from an elementary school and a residential neighborhood, chose to use less visible towers.
Exhausted, sweaty and with 0.7 milliren of radiation exposure, their tour of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant came to a close. From a journalistic standpoint, it was an amazing experience and something that not many people get to see or photograph.