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Earthquake, meltdown: can it happen here?

MIDDLEBURY-The General Electric-designed boiling water reactor (BWR) at the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon, Vt., is similar to-although not exactly like-the malfunctioning reactors at the Fukishima No. 1 atomic-power station in Japan. The reactors are operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company.

As a direct result of Japan's post-earthquake nuclear woes, Vermont Yankee's license extension request was put on hold by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)March 16. Several other nuclear plant license renewal requests, in other states, have also been placed on hold by the NRC.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has opposed keeping the state's sole nuclear plant open; he made it part of his 2010 campaign platform. The plant supplies nearly one-third of Vermont's electricity. A new mix of imported hydroelectric, fossil fuel and homegrown alternative energy sources will be needed to replace Vermont Yankee's electricity if the plant closes next year, which now appears likely.

Like Vermont Yankee, all six Fukushima BWR reactors were designed by General Electric. But in Japan, Hitachi and Toshiba corporations were also involved.

The coastal atomic station was seriously damaged March 11 by a Richter-scale 9.0 earthquake. The quake hit Japan with both an extensive tidal wave and ground tremors. It released the equivalent energy of 474 megatons of TNT.

Vermont temblors

What is Vermont's history of earthquakes and could Vermont Yankee experience a Japanese-like earthquake-triggered meltdown?

According to an extensive earthquake hazard study conducted for the Vermont Emergency Management Agency in 1995, "The documented earthquake history of Vermont is only a few hundred years long, and it becomes progressively more incomplete as one goes backward in time."

However, it is unlikely that an earthquake on the scale seen in Japan has ever occurred in Vermont in human memory. There are certainly no known French or Native American accounts of large earthquakes in our region, dating back to the 1600s.

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