State’s plan to replace nuclear power with fossil fuels is a step backwards

By Guy Page

A sound energy plan sets forth the “what” of a desired outcome and the “why” of a logical rationale. Its drafters must understand and apply the wide, long view of relevant history, present day forces and trends, and the measured conclusions of science. Politics, emotion and the Headline of the Week should not be factors.

Based on actions and statements by the administration of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin to date, the following summarizes its likely policy for the state’s electricity supply:

Policy goal: Replace instate nuclear power with instate/regional renewables and fossil fuels, especially natural gas. Rationale: nuclear power is unsafe, and storing its spent fuel is unsustainable. By comparison, renewables and fossil fuels are safe and economically and environmentally sustainable.

Such a policy is built on the sandy soil of misinformation and will produce many economic and environmental problems.

Nuclear power is safe. Many Americans and Vermonters fear and distrust nuclear power. What do history and the present day teach us? In the 50-plus years of the U.S. nuclear power industry, no-one has ever died as a result of radiation. In Japan, an unreinforced reactor with poor backup systems (both well below American operational standards) experienced the worst quake/tsunami in recorded history. U.S. nuclear power regulators and industry experts must learn from this accident and apply its lessons, including the difficulties of evacuation and the as-yet-unknown potential impact of environmental radiation. Yet as of this writing, the known human death toll from radiation as a result of this disaster is zero. The problem of spent fuel waste storage can be resolved by opening the federal repository promised by the federal government, or recycling, as successfully practiced in France.

Renewables are substantially safe but their economic sustainability is questionable. Industrial renewable power production requires upfront and ongoing government support, because it costs too much to build and generates too little in return. Even with these supports ratepayers must pay three to four times (estimated 15 cents for wind, 20 cents for solar) the amount Vermont Yankee is offering (4.9 cents).

But the real policy “catch” with intermittent renewable power is that it needs a “buddy”: 24/7, on-demand power to offset its intermittency. With modern day transmission technology, an estimated 20 percent of a grid’s power can be intermittent. Until improved technology changes the math, 80 percent (minimum) baseload power is the world we live in. So the real question in America now isn’t baseload vs. renewable, but choosing from among the different forms of baseload: nuclear, hydro, and/or fossil fuel. Gov. Shumlin and his team would replace the Vermont Yankee baseload with new gas power generation as part of the Champlain Valley pipeline extension project, and with surplus coal, nuclear and (mostly) natural gas power from New England.

Fossil fuels have a history of safety challenges and are not as environmentally sustainable as nuclear power. A Connecticut natural gas plant exploded Feb. 7, 2010 killing six people and injuring 50, just one of many fatal gas-related accidents. When burned, natural gas produces about two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, the worst emitter. Nuclear power produces virtually none. Gov. Shumlin said at a March 17, 2011 press conference, “I believe that climate change is the most important priority that we are facing as human beings.” Why, then, promote the burning of fossil fuels? If global warming threatens humanity, why make it worse?

Vermonters who want safe, clean, and affordable electricity have good reason to question our state’s movement towards reliance on fossil fuels.

Guy Page is the communications director of the Vermont Energy Partnership (www.vtep.org), an educational and advocacy not-for-profit organization comprised of more than 90 member businesses, organizations and individuals, which promotes state energy policies that will keep Vermont’s electricity low-carbon, safe, reliable and competitively-priced. Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee, is a VTEP member.