The governor’s fish story

by Meredith Angwin

Radioactive Fish

Governor Peter Shumlin caused some controversy when he said that he would not eat fish caught from the Connecticut River due to traces of Strontium found in the flesh of a fish captured nine miles from the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Shumlin said he fished in that area as a boy, but would not do so now.

Shumlin said at his weekly press conference that “common sense” led him to this personal decision, but what are the facts? What were radiation levels like in the past, when Shumlin was a boy?  The Vermont Department of Health (DOH) website shows that in 1971, before any local nuclear plants were operating, strontium in fish bones ranged up to 3500 pCi/kg, while now, forty years later, it is around 250 pCi/kg. These historical strontium measurements follow the world-wide trend: background radiation decreases as atmospheric nuclear testing fades into the past.

On average, the fish caught in Shumlin’s youthful expeditions were more radioactive than the fish he is refusing to eat now.

Today’s Fish 


In June 2010, background levels of radioactive strontium were found in fish bones from Connecticut River fish. The DOH was testing the fish as part of its monitoring program for Vermont Yankee. Plant opponents seized on the idea of “radioactive fish.” They wrote letters to the editor saying that nobody should eat Connecticut River fish. “Blinky the Three Eyed Fish” stood in front of Brattleboro High School as people gathered for a Public Service Board meeting in July.

Now, fish and strontium are in the news again. One fish, caught nine miles upstream of the plant in June 2010, showed strontium levels just above detection limits in the flesh of the fish. (For some reason, these fish were analyzed only recently). Strontium is chemically similar to calcium, and usually appears in the bones and scales of the fish, not the flesh. However, the amount of strontium in the flesh was low, very close to the detection limits. The amount of strontium in the flesh of the fish was no hazard to anyone’s health.

Due to atmospheric nuclear testing in the fifties and sixties, there’s a fair amount of radioactive strontium in the environment. It will show up with careful analysis, and all these fish are analyzed very carefully. Indeed, it is hard to find a lab that will do these low-level analyses (called hard-to-detect analyses). DOH recently changed labs, due to inconsistent results from one of their contract labs. (The DOH website is a good resource for this issue.)

The fact that the fish was nine miles upstream of the plant was also confusing. The upstream fish were supposed to be the control-group for fish caught near the plant. Though fish do swim, it is worth noting that none of the fish caught near the plant showed any strontium in their flesh. Looking at the data, the DOH radiological chief, Bill Irwin, said that his group did not believe the source of the strontium was Vermont Yankee.

The Fish and Governor Shumlin

When Governor Shumlin heard about the strontium, however, he issued a strongly worded statement. He said Entergy was putting their profits ahead of the safety of Vermonters. He also said that he had asked Entergy to keep running their tritium extraction wells, and they hadn’t done so.

Entergy immediately pointed out that their extraction wells had never shown any detectable strontium, just tritium. Irwin of DOH said that “we would need to see a pathway between the source and the fish.” Since there was no strontium in the groundwater, there was no obvious pathway.

The next day, at the press conference, Shumlin had to admit that Vermont Yankee might not be the source of the strontium. The press conference video shows a sort of dance, to and from the microphone, with Harry Chen of the Department of Health saying that the fish were safe to eat, and Shumlin explaining that Science might say one thing, but his Common Sense told him that he shouldn’t eat the fish. Shumlin said he had fished in the lower Connecticut area as a boy, but he would not do so now.

Oliver Olson, representative from Londonderry, responded by writing a letter to Shumlin, accusing the governor of hurting Vermont tourism by saying fish in the Connecticut River were unsafe to eat. Shumlin then issued another statement saying that not eating the fish was his “personal choice.”

Shumlin and the Fish and the Lawsuit

Shumlin’s actions do not help the state’s position in courts of law. One of the key features of the Entergy lawsuit is the assertion that the state has attempted to regulate radiological safety, which is the privilege of the federal government. In this case, Shumlin made statements about radiological safety, completely unsupported by scientific evidence. Shumlin also asserted that Entergy needed to take certain actions to protect the public from radiological danger: Entergy should pump more water from their extraction wells. In doing this, Shumlin publicly took over the NRC’s role. His actions will not strengthen the State’s position in court.

2 thoughts on “The governor’s fish story

  1. And now The Gov wants to excavate gravel from rivers around the state “as they fill up,” completely disregarding the basic scientific fact that stable river systems CONSTANTLY fill up (aggrade) and scour down (erode) their beds and banks. That’s how their energies are balanced and dissipated, preventing hugely destructive floods. *smack head*

  2. If is was 3500 pCi/kg in 1971, and forty years later, it is about 250 pCi/kg, it must have been much higher in 50s and 60s when all the atomic testing took place.

    Caven can you do a calc showing what it might have been in the 50s?

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