End Game for Vermont Yankee

by John McClaughry

John McClaughry

Three months from now Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee (VY) will be forced to make a fateful decision: whether to give in to the furious anti-nuclear campaign led for years by Vermont’s anti-nuclear new Governor, and abandon a safe, reliable, low-cost, nuclear plant that generates about a third of Vermont’s electrical consumption.

VY’s federal operating license expires in March 2012. In 2006 the company applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a twenty year license extension. Slowed to a crawl by the torrent of regulatory interventions by anti-nuclear groups, the NRC has yet to release its recommendations for extension. But based on its approval of extensions for dozens of similar plants, there is little doubt but what it will give VY a green light.

Anticipating that, the 2006 legislature passed a law unique among the fifty states. It declared that the Public Service Board cannot take any final action to authorize continued operation of nuclear plant without an affirmative vote of both houses of the legislature.

It is now clear that the legislative leadership – Speaker Shap smith and Senate president pro tem John Campbell – have absolutely no intention of allowing a resolution of approval to come to a vote. That resolution would likely be voted down, but not allowing anyone to vote on it will shield the anti-nuclear legislators from having to answer to their voters for the likely consequences of a shutdown.

Those consequences are potentially grave. VY produces 620 Mw of baseload power. It’s currently the lowest cost 24/7 power purchased by Vermont utilities. IBM, with its $35 million annual electricity bill, is deeply concerned that without VY, its power costs will rise by as much as 30%. That concern is shared by other manufacturers, hospitals, colleges,local governments, and ski areas.

Opponents argue that VY’s capacity is only 2% of the total New England power grid, and will scarcely be missed. What they don’t want to discuss is that the loss of regional generation requires finding replacement power from distant sources. That creates grid stability problems and possibly construction of expensive new transmission lines to move the power into the region.

The anti-nuclear activists’ pipe dream of wind turbines and solar PV notwithstanding, the replacement power will largely come from coal and gas fired plants – just the kind of plants that enviros staunchly oppose because they release the carbon dioxide that they believe leads to the dreaded “climate change”.

Suppose the legislature sneaks out of Montpelier in May without voting to allow VY to seek PSB approval for its continued operation. Then what?

VY operates with an 18 month fuel cycle. After 18 months online, the plant is shut down, the reactor head pulled, the spent fuel moved to a cooling pool, a new fuel load put in, the head put back on, and the plant starts a new power run. The next scheduled refueling falls in or around November.

When a refueling shutdown takes place, a new fuel load must be on site. The lead time for purchasing fuel assemblies is about five months. So VY will have to place its order in June.

But by the time the refueling is completed, the plant would have only three months to live. What company is going to spend millions of dollars on 18 months’ worth of new fuel, when thanks to anti-nuclear politicians the plant would have only three months of operation left?

Unless the legislature turns around on this issue by May, and the PSB (as widely expected) issues a Certificate of Public Good by June, Entergy is almost certainly going to have to abandon VY.

The only uncertainty has to do with a possible Entergy appeal to Federal courts to invalidate the 2006 statute. It’s not clear just what legal argument Entergy might advance to get Federal courts to overturn the 2006 statute, but the litigation might well continue long enough for VY, with a stay of execution, to run through another fuel cycle to mid-2013.

If VY is forced to shut down next March, the New England grid

operators may find some way to replace VY power, though at a significantly higher price. Perhaps more seriously, what business would be willing to locate or expand in a state where a legislature, answering to the demands of anti-nuclear activists, insisted on shutting down a safe, reliable, low cost source of electricity, vital to the state’s economic future?

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.