The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,742 Subscribers

Article Post

Vermont Yankee: Clean Kilowatt Cow That Deserves Saving

Vermont YankeeVermont 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On the days when natural gas was too pricy, Vermont Yankee’s daily output would have been replaced by burning almost a million gallons of diesel fuel.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 post Vermont Yankee: Clean Kilowatt Cow That Deserves Saving appeared on Atomic Insights.

Content Discussion

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 4, 2014

George, you make several logical errors in calculating nuclear energy’s safety record, and misstate the value of solar to Vermont’s energy consumers:

  • Characterizing all core damage events as “meltdowns” is a simplification which equates events where fuel elements were damaged (Chapelcross) with events where the reactor was destroyed.
  • Conflating meltdowns with safety ignores design specifications which are specifically intended to address the potential for meltdowns, and prevent the release of radiation. These specs have been remarkably effective: all nuclear accidents to date have been estimated by reliable sources to result in ~5000 deaths, making nuclear not only a safe source of energy, but the safest – about twice as safe as European hydroelectric.
  • The DOE doesn’t in fact say Vermont “can get nearly 1000% of its energy from solar PVs” (probably because it’s not true).
Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 4, 2014

George, it sounds to me like Gen II light water reactors have approximately achieved the predicted one-in 10,000 reactor-year rate for core damage with major releases of radioactivity.

Most of the nuclear accidents you mentioned were not Gen II light water reactors.  Chernobyl was of course a Gen I graphite moderated reactor, Fermi 1 which was an experimental prototype reactor (built starting 1957) was liquid metal cooled, Chapelcross was a Gen I Magnox graphite moderated, gas cooled reactor, Greifswald was Gen I water cooled reactor, Jaslovské was an old heavy-water cooled reactor.

This may sound like nit-picking, but the very core of your argument is that nuclear power safety predictions are not accurate, and that modern nuclear plants which are predicted to be safer are no better than older ones.  These claims are both clearly wrong.

It is clear that (1970s-1980s) Gen II nuclear plants (which constitute the majority of the current global fleet) are much safer than their fossil fuel counterparts, based on real-world track records.  The new Gen III plants (such as the AP1000s under construction at Vogtle in Georgia and the EPR at Flamanville France) are predicted to be much safer yet, and modern safety analysis has successfully predicted the weak areas which have contributed to the failures of older reactors (i.e. the Fukushima reactors were known to be vulnerable to loss of off-site power for more than a few hours, and Gen III reactors have closed this vulnerability).

You bring up an interesting point about the historic relationship between nuclear and pumped-hydro. It is actually because nuclear baseload is such a good match for typical electricity demand profiles that nuclear and pumped hydro work so well together.  In fact, baseload (with little load following) can supply around 50-60% of demand.  Add a few hours of energy storage and modest load following (e.g. spring or fall refueling outages) and nuclear can easily cover 100%.  

On the other hand, solar PV would be lucky to cover 20% of demand without storage.  Adding a 1/2 day of storage in a northern area like Vermont would only  take you to around 30%.  The problems include that solar in northern areas does not correlate with seasonal demand peaks (which occur in winter), the low capacity factor means a large percentage of the solar energy would have to cycle through storage (which hurts efficiency and pushes cost way up), and even with very large storage, 100% fossil fuel backup would still be required due to extended cloudy periods.  The result is that even with today’s low prices for solar PV, there is no rush to build new pumped-hydro or other large storage.  

Solar PV in northern areas only makes sense in a flexible generation-dominated electrical grid,  and flexible generation is generally synonymous with fossil fuel (however there are some sparely populated areas in Washington state, Canada, and Norway that have plentiful hydro).

David Newell's picture
David Newell on May 4, 2014

They have a license until 2031, but are shuttering it?

Nah, they won’t close it for good, just leave it in standby until the cost benefit reality justifes refueling. 

this natural gas fracking surplus will come to a screeching halt not too long hence.

My perspective is that nuclear deserves extremely serious safety oversight:

Carbon emitters are killing the planet.  As we speak.  

So: Between the choices of “russian roulette”, or fully loading the revolver and sticking it in my mouth, which do I want??

 I think I’d want to do the former, and hope that I could control the outcome:  the latter is certain, and happenning right now.  

The planet is dying. 

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on May 4, 2014

Nuclear doesn’t have to be regarded as russian roulette anymore. They are much safer than the gen I designs. If the public at large would rally for gen IV deployment, they would be even safer as such must be able to to passively radiate heat in the case of a core meltdown and some would already be molten as with the IFR and MSR, thus walk away safe. Conventional designs can also be placed at sea.

We need that clean baseload electricity to prevent fossil fueled lock in because, yes, the biosphere is currently faced with human caused mass extinction.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 5, 2014

@George, I stand corrected. I had no idea NREL had figured carpeting 22 square kilometers of rural Vermont with solar panels was remotely feasible.

Perhaps they need to justify their existence like any other government agency, but the absurd extent to which they’ve carried these calculations – starting with the total land area of Vermont and subtracting anything that’s already spoken for – is laughable.

They estimate 18,000m2 of solar produces 1MW. That means 35GW of rural utility-scale PV, their estimate of potential, would require 703 million square meters of solar panels. At an installed price of $4/watt, this single element of their hypothesized solar scenario – which excludes rooftop, urban, and concentrating solar power – would cost $140 billion.

Would pointing out this is 28 times the entire annual state budget be considered a quibble? Are we assuming natural gas comes to the rescue when a week of cloudy weather hits the state?

 

David Newell's picture
David Newell on May 6, 2014

Robert, I agree with you.

As a Safety Engineer (sf2750, ca.), I am aware that “absolute safety” is a dream realized only by that population of people who are located 6′ under in the nearest graveyard: 

 

and there is always a “possibility of loss” no matter how you engineer energetic systems. 

My comment about “russian roulette” was referential of this “possibility of loss”, no matter how small, as compared to the absolute reality attendent to continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere, which is “systems death”. 

 

As exemlified by (for instance) the “Permian Extinctoion” 1/4 billion years ago.