Prevention is Easier and Less Painful Than Cure – Keep Vermont Yankee Operable

Vermont YankeeOne of the well known techniques for minimizing the impact of an important report whose news some people don’t want to hear is to hold it for release until late Friday evening. That way, conventional journalists will not pay much attention until Monday morning and there will be some amount of decay in interest level by the time people hear about the news dump.

If you really want to submerge bad news and notice that Christmas is on a Thursday, it’s even better to time the report release for Christmas Eve. That way, there will be a long, festive weekend in which few people pay attention.

Someone who shall remain nameless apparently decided to take advantage of the calendar; a report titled Economic Impacts of Vermont Yankee Closure prepared for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments was released late in the afternoon of December 24. Fortunately, some of the old conventions of the news cycle are being overturned by such intrepid organizations as VT Digger, which noticed the release and published an immediate article titled UMASS-DARTMOUTH REPORT DETAILS IMPACT OF VERMONT YANKEE CLOSING.

A number of other stories are appearing — including one on New England Public Radio titled Three States Shoulder Economic Burden Of VT Yankee’s Closure – indicating that some responsible government bodies are finally getting a clue about the onerous impact to a three state region of closing a low-cost, well-run, environmentally-benign facility that produces a vital product that is showing no signs of going out of style.

This event should never have been seen as a single state issue. It should have been obvious from the time that Vermont Yankee was built that a power plant on a state line between two states and within a couple of dozen miles of a third state is deeply involved in interstate commerce. It should not be forced to prove that it is “needed” by the public of any one state.

For many reasons, including lack of focused attention by some of the people who will be most affected, the Vermont Yankee saga is in the bottom of the ninth, the home team is behind by a run or two, there are two outs, and there is already one strike on the batter at the plate. Worse yet, the batter appears to be under orders to keep the bat on his shoulder no matter what pitch is thrown.

I’ve never enjoyed being an “I told you so,” especially in situations where there are still opportunities to prevent a painful learning experience from actually happening.

On Monday, December 29, 2014, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant will shut down because its current fuel load has been nearly completely used up. Because no new fuel has been ordered, the plant will remain shut down for at least six months. That estimate is a pure guess; the lead time required to manufacture, deliver and install a new fuel load might be longer than that.

However, despite all assumptions to the contrary, the plant is not yet dead. The batter at the plate has a good eye and an excellent batting average as long as he is allowed to engage with the pitcher. There’s also a decent roster of pinch-hitters who can be inserted if the batter has mentally checked out and refuses to wake up.

The point of no return will not arrive until that fateful day when all of the fuel has been removed from the reactor vessel, the company has prepared and submitted two specific documents — one to certify that all fuel has been permanently removed and one to certify permanent cessation of operation — to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has accepted those documents, and has modified the plant license to a “possession only” status.

The process of completing the required steps can be pushed rather rapidly when stubborn decision makers want to make sure their choices are not later reversed — as was done in the case of San Onofre units 2 and 3 — but it can also be delayed for decades by people who want to keep options open — as was done in the case of TVA’s Browns Ferry Unit 1.

For a cost that is arguably lower than the cost of any alternative power, Vermont Yankee could be refueled and operated for another 17-18 years with the possibility of being refurbished and relicensed for another 20 years after that. It can keep contributing to the local economy and find additional ways to maximize its valuable location.

The highest and best use for a site that is already generating electricity is to keep doing so; adding more clean generating capacity that is not dependent on natural gas would be my first choice if I was involved in the decision making process.

It’s also possible to find other ways to add value. Electrical power plants like Vermont Yankee use steam systems that inevitably create a large amount of “waste” heat that could be put to use in either district heating or industrial process heat. Since heat is hard to transport, that works only if there are appropriate users nearby.

Unlike many nuclear plants, Vermont Yankee is conveniently located within a few hundred feet of a number of lumber yards. Those existing businesses probably pay more than they would like for heat to dry their product while their neighbor pays to dispose of the “waste heat” its turbine rejects. There is no evidence that the possible synergies have been investigated.

An operating entity more successfully explains the plant’s valuable clean electricity product and contribution to maintaining a stable electricity grid while reducing price volatility should be able to make a reasonable profit in return for investing the resources required to keep the plant running.

I’m confused by Entergy’s stubborn insistence that its decision to close the plant is driven purely by economics. Under current market rules, Vermont Yankee might not be the kind of consistent money maker that monopoly utility analysts prefer, but it is a low marginal cost producer of a vital commodity whose price occasionally spikes.

Unlike Dominion’s Kewaunee, which was located in a market with excess capacity and plenty of existing alternative power supplied, Vermont Yankee is in a capacity-constrained market. Adding more power generators will not solve the problem if the generators run on the same natural gas/distillate fuel combination that is already in short supply.

No amount of dreaming or alternative energy optimism is going to produce useful solar energy on cold, snowy, dark New England days. There are no flat plains nearby on which to install massive quantities of wind turbines. There are businesses salivating over new transmission lines or gas pipelines, but the people who live in the proposed pathways are not so excited.

Plenty of business leaders that have figured out how to maintain productive assets during lean-earning periods so that they are available for the profitable periods of high market demand. It’s time for the nuclear industry to look outside of itself for some best practices in strategic accounting and capacity planning.

It might also be time to call a time out in the Vermont Yankee shutdown saga and figure out who paid that excellent batter to keep the wood firmly on his shoulders instead of using his skills to keep the ball in play and extend the game.

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