Yankee Speak

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(HOST) While the collapse of a water cooling tower at Vermont Yankee last month produced riveting news images, commentator Philip Baruth has been far more interested in the language arising from the event.

(BARUTH) Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been a big collector of political euphemisms and deliberately indirect language. Part of that interest was touched off by the discussion of Newspeak in Orwell’s 1984, but another part had to do with the high stakes of the game itself.

But lately, I’ve become fascinated by another distant offshoot of political euphemism: the reflexive euphemism used by the nuclear industry to contain public relations damage when a power-plant malfunctions.

Linguistic case in point: our own Vermont Yankee, and the way its various recent slow-downs and break-downs have been carefully un-described.

On August 21, a 50-foot cooling tower at the Vernon facility collapsed in a heap of splintered wood and metal piping. Pictures taken at the site of the accident show a broken pipe some 6 feet in diameter spewing thousands of gallons of uncooled water. But when the first examination of the site attributed the collapse to "sagging and deformed wood" – and even when a state investigation found not just "wood rot" but "iron rot" – Entergy Corporation insisted that the event was "not safety-related."

Then, a week later, Yankee experienced an emergency shut-down, due to a large valve that had gone inexplicably unlubricated. This alarming event Entergy managed to refer to as "Safe Shutdown Mode."

Now, by stressing that the tower collapse was "not safety-related," Entergy obviously meant to convey that the event would have no effect on the nuclear core at the plant. But it seems just as obvious to me that they also sought to mask the incident’s disturbing implications with a one-size-fits-all bit of reassurance.

If your mechanic told you that your 35-year-old Chevy just lost a chunk of its frame to iron-rot, but insisted that it wasn’t a safety issue, you wouldn’t just find a new mechanic – you’d call the Better Business Bureau.

But the tendency toward veiled language isn’t limited to Entergy itself. When the State’s own nuclear engineer inspected the collapsed tower, he stressed there was no "smoking gun" linking the collapse to Yankee’s recent and controversial 20% power increase. Instead, the engineer waxed Orwellian: "There is nothing obvious (smoking gun) to point to so it may be that the failure was due to a combination of failure modes."

A combination of failure modes – brilliant. And we’re left with the distinct impression that none of these failure modes has anything to do with safety.

The grand irony here is that a "Yankee" used to refer to someone who didn’t use five sentences because he could be clearly understood with one. But Entergy’s performance over the last year or two has morphed the word into its opposite. And in that way, the phrase "Vermont Yankee" has somehow become for me a strange and unsettling oxymoron.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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