Vermont Yankee, refueling, and solving the problem of intermittent energy sources

July 26, 2011, 6:00AMANS Nuclear CafeMeredith Angwin

Vermont Yankee stays online

On July 25, Entergy announced that it is ordering fuel for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and will conduct the refueling in October. The state of Vermont has passed laws that supposedly give it the right to refuse to let Vermont Yankee operate past March 2012. Entergy's decision to buy $60-million worth of fuel to be loaded in October was, therefore, no slam-dunk decision.

This saga has a long history. Entergy has sued Vermont, and part of its lawsuit was a request for an injunction against the state being allowed to shut down the plant while the suit was ongoing.

The story then got complicated. Judge J. Garvan Murtha of the federal court in Brattleboro, Vt., denied the injunction. In his ruling, Murtha said that "Entergy has failed to show that any irreparable harm it may incur between now and a decision on the merits would be, or is likely to be, ameliorated by a preliminary injunction in the short time before this court decides Entergy's claims." He also moved up the date of the full hearing to September 12.

Murtha said many things that sounded like he had acknowledged Entergy's having a good case. On the other hand, he also turned down the injunction. This gave commentators lots of room to comment! (There's never a "slow news day" around this trial.) I commented and some professors at Vermont Law School commented.

Opinions abound

Everybody had an opinion. In my post on the matter-titled "Half-Empty and Half-Full"- I tried to make the various arguments at least amusing.

But to a certain extent, it was all blather. The ball was in Entergy's court and we commentators were just talking about what we thought might influence its decision. The whole thing was like sports commentary. Would Entergy bet on a favorable outcome to the lawsuit (buy fuel)? Would it hedge its bets and not buy fuel? Opinions varied.  (By the way, my own predictions were wrong. I thought that Entergy would hedge its bets and not buy fuel.)

Then, a few hours later, I had to explain why I was wrong. Now Entergy has made the decision to buy fuel, which means that, no matter what the court decides, Vermont Yankee will operate through March 2012. It will not be shut down at the next refueling outage, in October 2011. If the court decides in favor of Vermont Yankee, the plant will operate long past March 2012.  It has a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and I hope it will operate until 2032.

I am very happy about this.

Looking east to Seabrook

Instead of yet-more-commentary on Entergy's lawsuit, I thought I would talk about Vermont's loss and New Hampshire's gain for a moment. Specifically, I want to talk about the Seabrook nuclear plant.

In May, Green Mountain Power, a distribution company located in Vermont, decided to buy 60 MW of power from the Seabrook nuclear plant, located in New Hampshire. Vermont's governor, Peter Shumlin, a fierce foe of Vermont Yankee, applauded this decision because, as he said, "cheap power makes a real difference" in creating jobs.

I wish that Shumlin felt that way about the inexpensive power from Vermont Yankee.

Meanwhile, back in the days when people were campaigning against Vermont Yankee by walking in midwinter to Montpelier (Vermont's capital) to call for a shutdown of the plant, I met many of the walkers at a potluck dinner.

One of the walkers worked at SustainX, a company developing advanced energy storage using compressed air. Without energy storage, intermittent renewables are not useful on the grid.

I admired the walker from SustainX because he was not just waving his hands about what a great future renewables would have. He was actually doing something-working on energy storage. He was trying to address one of renewable's major problems. But I wonder now if he is moving to the town of Seabrook, N.H.

My local paper, the Valley News (unfortunately not fully on-line), had a business section story on July 24: "SustainX Uproots From the Upper Valley." Matt Clary at the Valley News interviewed Dax Kepshire, the cofounder of SustainX. Kepshire  explained that they were able to find only one building in the Upper Valley area that was suitable for the company's expansion, and that they instead decided to move to Seabrook, N.H. (The company had been located in Lebanon, N.H., just across the Connecticut River from my house in Vermont.)

What was the draw of Seabrook? Let me quote the article: "In addition to providing more space, the new facility's proximity to the Seabrook nuclear power plant provides the company with access to less expensive electricity as it tests its unit, Kepshire explained."

In other words, even if you are dedicated to solving the major problems of renewable energy, you still need inexpensive reliable electricity. If Vermont Yankee stays online, we will have this in Vermont, and people won't have to buy power from Seabrook, move to Seabrook, etc.

Nothing against Seabrook, you understand, but Vermont needs Vermont Yankee.



Meredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters. She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division. She is an inventor on several patents.

Angwin serves as a commissioner in the Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project. She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

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