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Power Plays

Will a boost in Vermont Yankee output be a bust for Vermonters


Published January 21, 2004 at 9:09 p.m.

It was cold and harsh in Montpelier last week for representatives of Entergy Nuclear, owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, but the Arctic-like conditions outside were the least of their concerns. Inside the hearing room of the Public Service Board, board members sounded rather chilly towards Entergy, which is seeking permission to boost the plant's power output by 20 percent. Entergy has already struck a deal with the Department of Public Service for the power increase, or "uprate." But the agreement also has to be approved by the PSB, the quasi-judicial body charged with looking out for Vermont's ratepayers. And after a long week of often highly technical testimony, there were clear signs that the board still hasn't warmed up to the idea.

Entergy, the Mississippi-based energy corporation that bought Vermont Yankee in July 2002, asserts that the power increase is necessary to ensure New England a steady, reliable and affordable energy source for the next decade. Entergy spokesman Rob Williams says the uprate would provide an additional 110 megawatts of electricity to New England, exclusive power for Vermont utilities if they need it and an estimated $400,000 in additional state taxes. Entergy is also prepared to make significant investments and upgrades to ensure the facility's ongoing safety and reliability, he adds. Finally, the company has agreed to provide the state with $20 million in other perks just to sweeten the deal.

But uprate opponents point out that Vermont Yankee is already 31 years into its expected 40-year life span and similar plants of the same vintage have since been shut down due to age-related problems. In fact, if the uprate is approved, Vermont Yankee will become the oldest nuclear-power plant in the country to attempt a power increase of this magnitude. And that, critics contend, dramatically increases the odds of a catastrophic failure.

But those same opponents also fear that even their long list of economic, environmental and safety concerns about the power increase -- higher storage costs for the additional radioactive waste, the release of more airborne contaminants, a one-third increase in radiation to nearby elementary school children, and so on -- still won't be enough to scuttle the deal. They point out that Entergy has significant political backing from the Douglas administration, which has a strong interest in seeing this deal go through. As one observer said of Entergy last week, "Where does this 800-pound gorilla sit in Vermont? Anywhere it wants to."

Still, the deal first has to pass muster with the PSB, and by week's end, the board indicated that it's seriously considering getting a closer look at Vermont Yankee before approving the deal. The board indicated that it may ask the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an independent safety assessment, which is precisely what several industry experts say is needed to determine if the aging power plant can handle the added stress.

"All we ask for is an independent assessment of what's going on at Vermont Yankee," says Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear-industry whistleblower who testified last week about environmental and safety concerns related to the power increase. "The last time the NRC did that at Maine Yankee, they found so much wrong, they shut the plant down."

Although Gundersen was testifying on behalf of the New England Coalition, the Brattleboro-based citizens' group that is fighting the uprate, he hardly qualifies as a no-nukes activist. For 20 years, Gundersen was a licensed nuclear-reactor operator who assessed the safety and reliability of nuclear-power plants, measuring wear and tear on components and calculating their risks of failure. He has testified in scores of atomic energy lawsuits -- including high-profile cases like the Three-Mile Island disaster -- about 40 percent of the time on behalf of the nuclear industry. But when Gundersen, who now teaches math and physics at Burlington High School, learned last spring that Vermont Yankee wanted to increase its power output by one-fifth, the idea troubled him immensely.

"We're absolutely up against every limit the plant can get to," says Gundersen, who is volunteering his time and expertise to review some 390,000 pages of documents on behalf of the New England Coalition. "I came out of the woods to testify because we're all downwind. And that scares the hell out of me."

Gundersen isn't the only industry expert with serious misgivings about the power boost. Paul Blanch is an independent consultant who has worked in the nuclear industry for more than 35 years. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman once called Blanch "the Henry Aaron of whistleblowers" for his revelations about significant design flaws at 37 nuclear-power plants around the country. Blanch, who as recently as last year worked for Entergy Nuclear at its Indian Point facility in New York, has also expressed the need for a more intensive inspection of Vermont Yankee. Last week, Blanch gave his professional opinion about various safety systems at Vermont Yankee, including his assessment of an emergency containment pump just like the one that forced the closure of Maine Yankee.

After Blanch's often technical testimony, Gundersen explained in plain English what it would mean if a containment pump fails. "If there's no containment pressure, we're screwed. Every pump in the plant fails. It's that simple," Gundersen says. "My guess is, it's a one in a thousand. Those are pretty shitty odds. I wouldn't walk across the street if my odds were one in a thousand of not making it."

Gundersen then summed up what such an accident would look like. "Chernobyl is child's play. This is the China Syndrome," he says. "It's not like there'd be a safe place to be within 100 miles."

But Entergy's Williams dismisses such talk as alarmist and says the proposed upgrades fall within the plant's original design specifications. "We've assured ourselves that we're well within the safety margins," Williams says.

If the science behind the proposed power increase hasn't been looking too attractive lately, neither has Entergy's public image. Recently, the company has suffered more than its share of regulatory setbacks and legal embarrassments, having been slapped twice with sanctions in the last four months. In October, ruling that Entergy had made "frivolous" filings and withheld crucial documents from the New England Coalition, the PSB ordered the company to pay the group $51,000. Then in early January, the PSB ruled that Entergy should be sanctioned again for beginning uprate-related construction work at the power plant without first obtaining the board's approval. An Entergy spokesman called the construction work an inadvertent oversight and "an honest mistake."

In December, Entergy suffered yet another humiliation when the NRC sent out a letter notifying the company that its uprate application was inadequate and asking for more information. The NRC decision could delay the power increase by as much as a year or more.

Then just last week, PSB board member David Coen accused Entergy of showing "disdain" for the board's authority and trying to force the regulatory process. The headline in the following day's Rutland Herald summed up Coen's rebuke: "PSB takes Entergy to the ‘Woodshed.'"

Nevertheless, those who have been following this process closely for months say that even those setbacks may not be enough to stop a proposal that has considerable political support. The recent agreement negotiated by the Department of Public Service reveals the Douglas administration's strong interest in seeing this deal go through. In exchange for permission to increase power, Entergy has agreed to provide $20 million in benefits to Vermont, including an estimated $7.8 million for the governor's "Clean and Clear Initiative" to clean up Lake Champlain and other Vermont waterways. The deal also provides a $4.5 million indemnification for Vermont ratepayers in the event that the nuclear plant goes offline and Vermont utilities have to buy their electricity on the open market. Entergy also threw in other perks, such as $2.1 million in power assistance for low-income Vermonters and $200,000 for marketing new Vermont businesses.

But uprate opponents contend that this agreement actually makes bad economic sense and could end up costing Vermonters in the long run. They contend that if Vermont Yankee is forced to shut down due to an uprate-related problem, the cost of buying power on the open market could readily exceed $4.5 million, especially if the outage occurs during peak demand months when electricity prices are highest. "Spot market in the middle of the summer? You don't want to be there," warns Peter Alexander, executive director of the New England Coalition. "We could exceed all $20 million if something went wrong after year three." Alexander also notes that under the deal, if the outage occurs after three years, Entergy pays nothing and Vermonters pick up the tab.

Moreover, Alexander adds, boosting a nuclear reactor's output by one-fifth also creates more radioactive waste, increasing the cost of both storing waste and decommissioning the plant when its license expires in 2012. During the years when Vermont Yankee was owned by the state, Vermonters paid into a decommissioning fund on their utility bills. It's expected that when Vermont Yankee is finally decommissioned, whatever money is left over in that fund will be split between Entergy and the state. Alexander asserts that if Entergy has just increased the cost of decommissioning the plant by $15 million, it's effectively taking $7.5 million out of the pockets of Vermonters. Meanwhile, Entergy earns an additional $10 million to $20 million per year on the power uprate.

"Basically, what we're looking at here is Entergy gets all the benefits and we take all the risks," Alexander says. "What I refer to it as a smoke-and-mirrors game on the part of Entergy to hoodwink the people of Vermont. That's what's really going on."