It was the first topic that Entergy CEO J Wayne Leonard tackled in the utility's quarterly earnings call with investors and reporters: What is the future of Vermont Yankee?
"We are committed to maintaining open and timely communications however great the challenge is for gaining public support and disproving a negative that the age of the plant is determinate of its condition, as is essentially the position the governor took last month," said Leonard.
Leonard then quoted Gov. Peter Shumlin as saying VY was "designed to shut down in 2012 and that 40 years is up in 2012." Leonard said this echoed campaign statements Shumlin made, including: "It's old it's tired and it should be retired."
Leonard said the governor is encouraging his counterpart in New York to take a similar approach and oppose the relicensing of Indian Point.
"While states and governors are certainly free to voice their opinions," Leonard added, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "which has jurisdiction in these matters must deal with the facts. And the fact is the 40-year life was based on the expected economic life, not the physical life, that nuclear plants were designed for."
Leonard also said despite the tritium leaks and component failures in recent years, Vermont Yankee has remained a reliable power producer and generated cash for Entergy.
"For all the pessimists out there, and I'm sure there may be a few, one thing you should know and that has not been communicated well, Vermont Yankee, at best, has completely covered its overhead," added Leonard.
One year ago, Vermont Yankee learned of two underground pipes that were leaking tritium into the groundwater. The leaks were from pipes that Entergy executives had previously told lawmakers and the Public Service Board never existed. Attorney General BIll Sorrell is still investigating whether Entergy officials lied under oath.
"I had a status meeting within the past two weeks and am hoping for a decision during the time frame of late March to late April," Sorrell told Seven Days. Sorrell has had to recently shift some of the legal team working on the Entergy case to a pending U.S. Supreme Court challenge of a state law, which allows physicians to have their prescribing information kept private from pharmaceutical companies and marketers.
The NRC estimates that more than three million gallons of tritiated water have been released into the groundwater. To date, about 340,000 gallons have been extracted from the ground and treated offsite. State health officials believe the leak began in 2009 and was only discovered and reported in 2010.
Recently, Entergy began to find trace amounts of tritium in wells well outside the known tritium plume, causing them to test for additional leaks. To date, two pipes have been tested and they do not appear to have leaks.
Entergy has been replacing underground and buried pipes and has additional plans to replace pipes during an October refueling outage. Whether it will refuel in October — something it does every 18 months — remains a question mark.
Entergy's earnings call comes on the heels of Gov. Shumlin’s announcement last week that he has set up a “reliability oversight panel” to delve more deeply into how Vermont Yankee can be shut down on time. In addition, Public Service Commissioner Liz Miller has reconvened the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel. The seven-member panel had largely been defunct under her predecessor. The panel will hold its first meeting on Feb. 20 Feb. 22* in Vernon.
A Senate vote last year — orchestrated by then-Senate President Pro Tem Shumlin — effectively put a halt to the state Public Service Board’s review of VY’s request for a renewed certificate of public good. Meanwhile the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is closing in on making a final up or down decision on VY’s application to keep running another 20 years.
What are the odds they’ll say yes? To date the NRC has yet to deny a license extension.
And, what happens if the NRC doesn't act before next year when the current operating license expires? Here’s what the NRC itself notes in a 100-plus page FAQ about nuclear power licenses:
Question: "What happens if the review of a license renewal application is not completed before the current license expires?"
Answer: "If the applicant files a sufficiently complete application for renewal of its operating license at least five years before the existing license expires but the renewal of the license is delayed because of administrative or judicial appeal, then the existing license will still be considered valid until a final decision on the renewal application has been made.’”
In other words, VY could argue a year from now that it has a legit license to keep running. And, who’s to stop them? Would the state take Entergy to court or the NRC? As noted last year in Seven Days, the idea of Entergy filing a federal pre-emption lawsuit isn't completely out of the question.
Will Entergy play that card? Leonard wouldn't say in today's earnings call, but he did say the time is nigh to make a decision on how the utility will proceed.
"We are looking for support from the people of Vermont and we are looking for support from the utilities," said Leonard. "We want to be regarded as good partners with Vermont, but at the same time in some respects we're being pushed into a bit of a corner here and there is a point where there is a line in the sand and we'll have to determine if we'll push forward or not."
Leonard said recent comments by the state's largest private employer IBM that its power needs would increase, coupled with calls from various manufacturers and the region's grid operator that VY provides stable and reliable power all weigh in their favor.
Leonard expects that by mid-year Entergy will have a new power purchase agreement with in-state utilities.
*This post has been updated to correct the date of the VSNAP meeting.