Vermont Yankee is a 650 MWe nuclear power plant in excellent physical condition. It has an operating license that is valid through 2031 and it is run by a well-trained operational staff.
It supplies power to a grid where 60% of the capacity comes from natural gas that is delivered via a constrained pipeline system.
That system proved to be incapable of delivering sufficient fuel to meet demand during numerous days during the past winter.
Fuel supply constraints in New England were severe enough on cold days during Winter 2013-2014 to push gas prices to a peak of $125 per MMBTU.
Virtually every dual-fueled generator in the region switched to distillate fuel oil on extremely cold days because that premium liquid fuel only cost $22 per MMBTU.
There were days during the winter when 25% of New England’s electricity came from burning distillate; fully 4% of the kilowatt hours during the months of December, January, February and March came from oil, up from just 0.6% the prior year.
If Vermont Yankee had not been running, electricity generators on the New England grid would have needed to purchase an additional 100 million cubic feet of natural gas every day.
On the days when natural gas was too pricy, Vermont Yankee’s daily output would have been replaced by burning almost a million gallons of diesel fuel.
In either case, the generators that would replace Vermont Yankee’s output would daily produce an extra 325,000 kilograms of CO2.
Even with all of those excellent reasons for keeping Vermont Yankee running Entergy, the plant’s current owner, has announced that it will shut the plant down for good when its current fuel load has been consumed. That will happen at the end of this year.
According to its press releases, Entergy has determined that it is no longer economical to continue operating the plant.
What Entergy has not clearly explained, however, are the factors that have combined to make the numbers unacceptable.
Unpopular for 50 Years
Vermont Yankee has been controversial since before it was built. Opponents sued during the construction permit process in 1966 to force the installation of cooling towers.
Four states intervened in its operating license hearings in 1971, leading to complaints about a significant cost overrun during construction.
In 2002, with about nine years remaining on its operating license, Entergy purchased the plant from owners who were considering an early decommissioning.
Though some people assumed that the plant would shut down at the end of its initial operating license, Entergy recognized that the plant was making a nice profit and had the potential for increased returns once its fixed price electricity supply contract expired.
Entergy performed a power uprate modification and renewed the operating license. Both actions were opposed by many, including powerful members of Vermont’s state government.
Some opponents have made it quite clear that they want Vermont Yankee shut down to make room in the market for the sources of generation that their companies or their friends’ companies supply.
Opposition groups have worked hard to publicize every VY miscue, no matter how minor the impact on public health and safety, using a campaign that portrayed Entergy as an untrustworthy, absentee owner from a foreign place called Louisiana.
The opponents even brought Helen Caldicott to Vermont for a whirlwind speaking tour telling people all about the evils of the nuclear industry and the hazards of the smallest quantities of radiation.
In response, Entergy has spent tens of millions of dollars on lawyers, lawsuits, reactionary public relations, and recovery efforts to alleviate public pressures.
The cost of the struggle, along with the drain on executive time, contributed to the decision that the plant was no longer worth operating.
Cooperative Business Model?
I had the opportunity to tour Vermont Yankee in late March. Throughout the tour, I was impressed by the plant’s material condition. I met people who take pride in their work but who are saddened by the closure plans and worried about the future.
When I left the plant I ended up following a truck on the highway from Cabot Creamery that said “Owned by Dairy Farmers Since 1919.” That started the wheels turning.
Vermont has a deep history of cooperative businesses. One of its larger employers is the King Arthur Flour Company, which transferred ownership from the family founders to employees in 2004.
The state is also one of several states that allows companies to incorporate as ‘B’ corporations with bylaws that enforce social goals that sometimes conflict with maximizing profits.
Vermont Yankee might not be worth operating as a less-productive-than-expected cash cow by a ‘C’ corporation that does not have strong local ties or even a good local reputation.
However, it is very definitely worth operating as a “clean kilowatt cow” by owners who feel personally responsible for its continued safe and reliable operation.
Most of the opposition’s talking points will disappear for a group of local owners; reduced opposition will reduce expenses that add to operating costs.
Financing can be arranged for a business that is immediately profitable and sells a product that never goes out of style.
In a world that has been fighting over oil supplies for as long as most of us can remember, it seems very short-sighted for state government leaders to encourage a nuclear plant to shut down when part of its output will be likely to be replaced by burning more oil.
It is not too late for nuclear proponents to target Vermont Yankee as a symbolic model for saving a valuable asset, supporting a talented group of professionals, and reminding people that nuclear plants are very good at what they are designed to do.
They produce large quantities of clean, reliable electricity and reduce our excessive dependence on fossil fuels.
If that doesn’t meet the definition of a ‘B’ corporation I don’t know what would.
The above article first appeared in the April 10, 2014 issue of Fuel Cycle Week. It is reprinted here with permission.