UVM Forum Asks: Vermont Yankee, Yea or Nay? | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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UVM Forum Asks: Vermont Yankee, Yea or Nay? 

Published February 21, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.

In roughly one year, the operating license of Vermont's lone nuclear power plant — Vermont Yankee — expires.

Despite a continued push by Entergy, the plant's owners, along with a vocal group of businesses and citizens, there appears to be little evidence that lawmakers, or the governor, will reverse last year's legislative vote and pave the way for the plant to have its relicensing case heard before the state Public Service Board.

Since last year there have been three, possibly four, leaks that have spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of water laced with tritium into the groundwater and Connecticut River. Last week, a high-pressure steam leak forced the evacuation of the reactor building.

On Thursday, two experts on nuclear energy will debate Vermont Yankee's continued operation in the next installment of the University of Vermont's Janus Forum: "Vermont Yankee: Shut It Down or Keep It Running?" The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 4 p.m. in the Davis Center's Silver Maple Ballroom.

Speaking in support of Vermont Yankee is Howard Shaffer, who has been a member of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) for 34 years, and is nuclear engineer.

Speaking in favor of shutting down VY is Arnie Gundersen, chief engineer of Fairewinds Associates, and a former nuclear industry executive and licensed reactor operator.

Shaffer believes VY's largest obstacles to relicensing are not technical, but political. Despite the leaks — and other assorted problems with failing parts in recent years — Shaffer said VY has been running much more reliably since Entergy took over operations. What hasn't been happening, however, is better outreach from both the industry and the U.S. Department of Energy, which has a role in promoting nuclear power, to respond to charges by opponents that VY is not safe to operate beyond 2012.

"A charge unanswered is a charge believed," notes Shaffer. "From my own point of view, the public outreach by VY and the industry has been less than desirable."

As noted in this week's "Fair Game," Entergy spent more than $700,000 to lobby the public and lawmakers during the past biennium.

Shaffer, and others in Vermont, are trying to ramp up educational efforts to dispel what he claims are false assumptions about VY's operations.

The failure of underground pipes was expected, said Shaffer, and construction design books from the time of VY's construction even note that the pipes were built with the best-available technology at the time.

"The problems we are seeing right now are happening across the industry and are not particular to Vermont Yankee," said Shaffer. "It's doing well from a safety point of view and a reliability point of view. Is it perfect? No. but we don't demand that of any other technology."

Shaffer said the amount of tritium released into the soils, though not insignificant, isn't enough to harm health — and in some cases emits less tritium than would be released from a well-lit "exit" sign in a commercial building.

A steam leak in the reactor building last week, Shaffer noted, may seem bad to the public, but it's not. "It's a ho-hum kind of thing. Steam leaks are normal," said Shaffer.

Shaffer hopes he and others can convince lawmakers that the need for low-cost, baseload power for companies like IBM will persuade them to rethink their vote from last year. In addition, he notes, there is growing concern about the reliability of the regional grid without Vermont Yankee.

Besides, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has, in each instance of a leak or other problems at VY, concluded that proper steps were taken to mitigate any harm and that the plant's owners took appropriate steps in response.

Gundersen said it's not Vermont's role to prove that Vermont Yankee should shut down — in fact, it's the opposite.

"The burden of proof is not on Vermont, it's on Entergy. What have they done to show us that relicensure is warranted? I don't come up with anything," said Gundersen. "We don't have to shut them down. They have to prove they are worthy of our trust to continue."

By Gundersen's count there have been nine, perhaps ten, leaks since 2009: two in the high pressure cooling injection system, two in the feedwater system, two in the reactor-water cleanup system and three, possibly four, in the offgas system. These latter leaks have been the cause of tritium leaking into the groundwater through pipes that Entergy officials told regulators and lawmakers didn't exist. On top of that, cooling towers have collapsed and a transformer caught fire.

"I break the problems associated with Vermont Yankee into three pieces: component issues, management issues and integrity issues," said Gundersen, who was part of an oversight panel that concluded VY could operate reliably for another 20 years if it addressed more than 80 issues of concern.

To date, Gundersen said, those issues haven't been completely addressed, though there are plans in place to do so. "This is, of course, the same people who told us to trust them there weren't underground pipes," said Gundersen.

Eleven people were reprimanded last year for helping to cover up the fact that the firm misled state regulators and lawmakers about the existence of those underground pipes.

"When lying becomes that systemic, it doesn't go away from changing your hard hat from Entergy to Exelon," said Gunderen. The latter firm is rumored to be interested in buying Vermont Yankee as a last-ditch effort to instill new confidence in the plant's operations. A sale to a new owner and new power deal with Vermont utilities are being touted as ways to get lawmakers to reconsider VY's fate.

A power-purchase agreement between Entergy and the state's utilities has been rumored in the offing for weeks now. In a recent earnings call, Entergy's CEO J. Wayne Leonard said he expects a PPA by mid-year. He noted if a PPA with Vermont utilities doesn't materialize, he didn't think that would impact the company's decision to keep running beyond 2012.

In other words, with or without, Vermont Entergy sees a future for the plant, raising the specter of a federal court fight.

Could the case end up in court? Both Shaffer and Gundersen believe its a possible outcome.

Shaffer said he thinks Entergy would likely prevail because it can make the case that Vermont is overstepping its authority and getting in the way of the federal role in licensing nuclear power operations.

Gundersen said if Entergy does go to court, it will have reneged on not one, but two, signed agreements that it would abide by state law to continue operating. Without approval from the Vermont Public Service Board, it cannot continue to operate.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has yet to deny a license extension, has been reluctant to use its federal authority to supercede a state's ability to regulate environmental and energy impacts of nuclear power inside their borders.

That said, if the NRC does not rule on VY's application before the power plant's license expires in 2012, its present license would remain intact. In other words, VY can continue operating under its "old" license until the NRC renders a decision.

Entergy CEO Leonard said the company's "line in the sand" moment is fast approaching before it has to decide whether to fight on to keep running before 2012, or shut down. The plant is scheduled to be refueled in October.

If the plant does not intend to stay open beyond 2012, Gundersen notes, Entergy could easily pull the plug on the plant then since during that time other investments would need to be made to replace underground pipes and other failing equipment. Refueling occurs every 18 months.

"If they do decide to remain open, I don't see them running for longer than until 2016, maybe 2017," said Gundersen. Why? Because at that point the plant's main condenser would have to be replaced. A new condenser could cost as much as $200 million — its price is largely dependent on the global cost of copper.

Shaffer said the costs associated with keeping VY open are worth it to regional power customers — and when one considers the revenue Vermont takes in from VY to the Clean Energy Development Fund, as well as the employees who work at Vermont Yankee. About one third of the company's nearly 600 employees live in Vermont.

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Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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