The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont is a relatively young steam plant that uses a low-cost, essentially emission-free fuel. It is strategically located in an area with few fossil fuel resources, extreme weather, and frequent spikes in electricity prices. It has a well-trained, experienced operating staff that has an excellent performance record. Three years in a row — 2010, 2011, and 2012 — it was voted as the best place to work in Vermont. It has a license to operate from the federal government that is good for another 18 years.
However, politicians in the state — several of whom have substantial financial links to the natural gas and renewable energy industry — have cooperated with emotional activists to add enough extra costs to convince its current owners that it is not worthwhile to continue operating the plant. Those same politicians have somehow convinced their public utility commission that there is question about whether or not the plant is beneficial so the process of granting a “certificate of public good” has been held up for several years.
When its current fuel is exhausted. the 620 MWe nuclear power station will shut down and the owners will give up the operating license. That tragic event is currently scheduled to occur sometime near the end of 2014. Replacing its output will require burning approximately 100 million cubic feet of natural gas every day. During a 100 day winter like 2013-2014, the plant’s electricity output reduces demand on regional gas storage and delivery systems by an important 10 billion cubic feet.
I knew all of those facts before I visited the plant on March 27, 2014. What I did not realize was just how impressive the plant’s current physical condition would be. There is no doubt that the plant has been lovingly cared for, often by people who have spent their entire professional career at the facility. I was fortunate enough to have a tour guide, Bernie Buteau, who was one of those VY career people. He started working at the plant the same year I finished high school — nearly 39 years ago. He will be retiring when the plant retires.
I’ve had the opportunity to tour a large number of steam plants over the past 50 years. I started early; my dad was an engineer at the local power company who he wanted his children to understand what he did for a living. I was a steam plant engineer in the Navy for many years, and have taken a number of tours of various types of facilities whenever the opportunity arose. I don’t think I have ever seen a place as clean, well-labeled, and well-preserved as Vermont Yankee.
I’d love to be able to show you some photos taken during my tour, but cameras are not welcome at nuclear power plants. For some reason, people have decided they are vulnerable targets instead of the sturdy, resilient pieces of infrastructure that they are. As we were leaving the plant, Bernie described how much the site had been forced to change and become far less inviting and beautiful as a result of what I consider to be severe overreaction to 9-11. Many maple trees had been removed, new parking lots had constructed at distant locations, and close-in parking lots had filled with fences, razor wire, and security buffers.
Other, less visible security-related alterations also added a considerable ongoing cost of owning and operating the plant.
There is no doubt in my mind that most of the people living in Vermont and neighboring states will suffer negative effects when the plant shuts down without any available replacement other than burning more gas, coal and oil. Electricity costs will increase, home heating fuel costs will increase and the air will be a little dirtier.
I spoke at length with some local people who have been keeping a close eye on the political actions that contributed to Entergy’s decision to close the plant as no longer being worth operating and maintaining. They told me that the main plans for replacement power depend on future construction of gas pipelines from the Marcellus shale region, gas pipelines from Canada, and electricity transmission lines from Canada.
None of those projects has started construction or has all of the required contracts and permits. In other words, there are hopes and prayers but no firm plans other than to struggle along with systems that are either already in place or can be delivered in a short period of time.
This past winter, the region ended up burning diesel fuel and jet fuel to produce electricity when the installed gas pipelines could not deliver any more fuel. There were days when 1000 cubic feet of natural gas — a standard trading unit of fuel that contains about 1/6th of the energy content of a barrel of oil — cost more than $100 on the spot market.
It is unlikely that very many of the affected people will realize why their cost of living has increased or recognize the perpetrators of the virtual crime that stole a valuable asset from them.
Maybe, in the 9 months that remain before December 28, the currently scheduled last day of operations, there will be a white knight who rides in to save the day.
Do you know anyone who wants to buy an operating nuclear plant, make a few dollars producing a product that will never go out of style, save about 600 jobs, and make life a little better for a large number of people?
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Photo Credit: Vermont Yankee Use/shutterstock