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Consider the Consequenses

Local Matters


Published December 1, 2004 at 9:59 p.m.

Anti-nuke activists in the Brattleboro area are calling on Vermont's sportsmen to share some of the spoils of recent hunts -- and it's OK if they're the unkindest cuts.

The New England Coalition (NEC), a nonprofit educational group that opposes nuclear energy, is asking hunters in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts who look for prey in the counties surrounding the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon to contribute unwanted animal parts from this year's deer season. The pilot project precedes a larger sampling program that will begin in 2005 and focus on mammals, aquatic life and river-bottom sediments. The point is to look for radioactive contaminants that may have escaped from the nuclear plant since it opened in November 1972.

NEC is paying hunters $10 each for animal parts that are normally discarded -- jaws, teeth, organs, bones, gonads and scrap flesh -- which will be sent to independent labs for testing. NEC Executive Director Peter Alexander says they want to see if the periodic releases of radiation from Vermont Yankee are accumulating in the local food chain.

"We feel it's the responsible approach, to make sure that people are safe because they're eating this stuff," says Alexander. "We don't know what will come up, but we just want to be sure."

No one has ever done a comprehensive study of radioactive contaminants in the vicinity of Vermont Yankee, according to NEC technical advisor Ray Shadis. However, similar studies have been done near other nuclear plants around the country, including Maine Yankee and Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania, some of which turned up elevated radiation levels.

Shadis admits that even if this study does find elevated levels, it will be difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. First of all, there is no control group and the sampling of specimens will likely be very small. Secondly, studying deer is problematic because they're finicky eaters and often feed heavily on one food source for a month or two before moving on to another.

Additionally, Shadis says, any such study will have to differentiate between the radioactive contaminants that are created by a nuclear reactor and the nuclear fallout resulting from decades of atmospheric weapons testing. And as Shadis points out, Vermont was heavily dosed with nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

The NEC radiological sampling program won't be cheap, either -- according to Shadis, a gamma analysis of just one animal part can run from $80 to $100. Nevertheless, the idea is that if just one or two samples turn up "hot," it could indicate what else is out there.

For example, in July the Brattleboro Reformer ran a photo of mutated daisies that were growing near Vernon. Similar mutations were found in daisies and other vegetation near Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl.