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Common Ground: Casting Our Fate to the Wind

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

Gregg C. is an ordinary guy…who happens to be passionate about shutting down a nuclear power plant.

On a frigid New England Sunday in February 2006, Gregg was part of a group of people who walked 3.4 miles from downtown Brattleboro, Vermont, to the offices of Entergy Nuclear, LLC, the company that owns and operates the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in nearby Vernon and 10 other plants around the nation.

Many of the protesters had been on the front lines before; it was a new experience for the retired human services counselor who lives in Massachusetts, downwind from the plant. Technically, Gregg’s home is outside the 10-mile emergency zone covered in official evacuation plans. But as he put it, that 10-mile limit is ludicrous. If there were an "incident" that released a plume of radiation, no one knows how far the wind would carry it, or in which direction.

In September 2003, Entergy Vermont Yankee applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a 20-year extension of its operating license and a 20% power "uprate"—increasing the energy the plant is allowed to generate to a level higher than when it first came online in February 1973.

Anti-nuclear activists protested immediately, and they continue to speak out, citing the irresponsibility of overpowering a facility that’s already 33 years old and due for decommissioning, and the wisdom of relying on nuclear energy when there are health risks associated with ordinary plant operation, and there is no safe way to dispose of radioactive waste.

"I read an NRC statement that said, in effect, ‘there is no reasonable expectation’ that there would be a problem," Gregg said. "That’s what pushed me over the edge." He began doing research, reading about cancers linked to emissions from the Oyster Creek reactor in New Jersey, and the "Tooth Fairy Project," which found unusually high concentrations of strontium 90 (a radioactive carcinogen produced in atomic explosions and nuclear reactor operations) in baby teeth of children who live near power plants. Some organizations and individuals dispute such studies, he acknowledged, but they’re seldom people who have a plant in their community.

Gregg visited the designated emergency command site at a local college and quickly realized the proposed evacuation plan is woefully inadequate. Even if the approved scenario played out as it’s described on paper, the refugee center seemed too small to him to even fit the 5,000 frightened people expected to gather there, let alone to decontaminate, treat injuries, feed and otherwise "process" them. To complicate matters, many of the refugees would be schoolchildren, because the plan is to evacuate them first. In a rural region, Gregg said, the same buses serve different schools. Where do they go first—assuming drivers continue to cover their routes? Who’ll take care of younger children? Is there a plan to reunite kids and panicked parents? And will help be available for everyone else, if the wind blows "the wrong way" that day?

Such questions trouble people around the world who live in the shadow of nuclear power plants. They’re typically located in low-population areas, making statistical threats sound acceptable to those whose energy sources are out of sight, out of mind. But one can’t trust the stats blindly: Think of Three Mile Island in March 1979, and the chain of events, human errors, and misjudgments by those in charge that nearly meant disaster for untold thousands of people who had no idea that anything was wrong.

I once heard a nuclear industry advocate say what happened at TMI was "proof that containment works." It was the difference between American plants and those built and operated elsewhere, she said.

By "elsewhere" she meant Chernobyl: On April 26, 1986, an explosion and fire killed at least 31 people and sent radioactivity into the atmosphere (as well as into surrounding earth and water). The wind carried it across Europe to the Middle East within days, according to "Chernobyl Legacy,"* a slideshow of photographs by Paul Fusco illustrating the human aftermath of the tragedy. By May 6, radiation was detected in the U.S. and Canada.

On April 26, 2006, the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, Internet Explorer offered a link to "Legacy": images of orphaned and abandoned children suffering from mental and developmental deficiencies, incurable cancers and grotesque physical deformities. It is a heart-wrenching warning that there is no foolproof design for plant construction; no dependable evacuation plan; no escape from poisons that will permeate the soil, water and atmosphere, and remain deadly for millennia. What man-made form of "containment" will last as long?

The NRC approved Vermont Yankee’s uprate, in increments, on March 2. Within a week, when the plant hit 105% of the power level it was designed for, excessive vibrations in its steam dryer put the operation on hold. That problem was resolved, but another stopped progress in early April, as output reached 112.5%.

Now there is an uprate in public pressure to stop the experiment, with people like Gregg spreading the word. Determined to get elected officials involved, he wrote and made copies of letters that scores of grateful residents have, in turn, sent to state and federal representatives, urging them to curb nuclear power in favor of safe, renewable energy, before it’s too late.

Not far from Vernon, a line of state-of-the-art windmills runs along a ridge—an astonishing sight to anyone traveling through the Vermont countryside. The Green Mountain Power station, built in June 1997, is small compared to wind farms out West, although I hear there are plans to install more towers.

There’s some powerful opposition to that—objections to noise from the propellers; harm to the environment and wildlife; disruption of natural beauty. Yet having seen a nuclear plant nestled in an otherwise breathtakingly beautiful river valley, I can’t help but weigh the potential danger it poses, or the filth it leaves behind, against the workings of those towers.

I know I’d sooner cast my fate to winds moving turbines rather than to the gentlest breeze carrying a radioactive plume.

* todayspictures.slate.com/inmotion/essay_chernobyl

For more on nuclear and wind power, visit http://science/howstuffworks.com/nuclear-power and the National Wind Technology site, www.nrel.gov/wind.


Ellen Lovinger Eller is a freelance writer and editor; a columnist for Transformational Times, the quarterly newsletter for Moriah Marston's School of the Golden Discs; a correspondent for the West County News in Shelburne Falls, MA; and an inspirational speaker on the environment and civic responsibility;. E-mail: gorillee@aol.com

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