Saturday March 19, 2011

BRATTLEBORO -- Following the announcement that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will soon issue a new license for Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to continue to operate until 2032, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources announced it will begin its own task -- investigating what standards should be in the plant’s updated pollution discharge permit.

The state was also awaiting the Environmental Protection Agency to release an updated version of it Draft Guidance for Water Quality-based Decisions. That document is expected by the end of next week.

"This is the right time to start the permit renewal," said Deb Markowitz, secretary of ANR.

Another thing that was holding up the process, she said, was the cost of doing the work required to insure the permit was scientifically valid.

"The Legislature changed the law about a year ago to allow us to charge Vermont Yankee for the cost," said Markowitz.

Because ANR is now allowed to "charge back" expenses related to the permit, it plans to hire a consultant to help ANR’s staff to determine the impact of the change in water temperature due to the discharge and its effect on the river’s wildlife and habitat.

In addition to awaiting charge-back authority, ANR has been watching developments at another Entergy-owned plant in New York -- Indian Point -- regarding the second part of Yankee’s discharge permit, whether Entergy is using the "best technology available" to reduce the effects on river life when water is taken from the Connecticut River for cooling purposes.


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The permit from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation requires the installation of cooling towers, which Indian Point doesn’t have. It operates under what is called an open-cycle cooling system, drawing water from the Hudson River. Using towers only is considered closed cycle.

Yankee has cooling towers and, depending on the time of the year and the ambient temperature of the river, can operate in either mode or a combination of the two.

"We haven’t made a decision whether it makes sense to go to closed cycle," said Markowitz. "We need scientific input. If we decide (closed cycle) is the best way to insure a minimum impact on the habitat and the health of the Connecticut River, we will make that decision."

Recently, ANR received a letter from the Connecticut River Watershed Council asking it to begin the process of issuing the permit.

"The technique we think ANR should adopt is closed-cycle cooling," said Laura Murphy, a staff attorney at the Vermont Law School’s Natural Resources Law Clinic, who wrote the petition for the watershed council.

Once the draft permit is issued, which might not happen until sometime after March 21, 2012, when the power plant’s original license is due to expire, a public comment period will be started.

"We are asking that the state deny or act and issue a renewal permit so that the public process can begin," said Murphy.

Entergy has opposed closed-cycle cooling at Yankee because running the 22 fan cells that make up the two towers requires a significant portion of the energy produced by the plant.

How much it costs on a daily basis is proprietary information, said Larry Smith, Yankee’s director of communications, but industry analysts have stated it costs up to $1 million a day to run the cooling towers.

Three years ago, the Environmental Court held hearings to review the CRWC’s contention that the thermal discharge limits of the previous permit issued by ANR were harmful to the river and its indigenous population.

Yankee’s discharge is non-radioactive water that is withdrawn from the river, run through the plant’s condenser to cool reactor coolant water and released into the river at temperatures around 100 degrees.

The Environmental Court issued a decision limiting the times in which Yankee can release heated water into the river and at which river temperature it had to cease to do so.

CRWC appealed the decision -- because it felt it didn’t go far enough in restricting the discharge -- to the Vermont Supreme Court, which upheld the Environmental Court’s decision.

Catherine Gjessing, Associate General Counsel for the Department of Environmental Conservation, a branch of ANR, said the issues that were brought up before the environmental court could be once again brought up during hearings about the new permit.

"The renewal does call for a fresh look at the issues," said Gjessing. "We will have new information that was not considered by the court because of ongoing monitoring associated with the permit."

It’s conceivable that new information could be available, said Elise Zoli, Entergy’s environmental legal counsel, but she is not aware of anything that would change the conclusions that were reached by the Environmental Court.

However, she said, if new legitimate information arises, which she said was "virtually impossible," Entergy would consider it relevant and would address it.

"But we don’t expect that to occur," said Zoli.

"Our position is we’re starting from scratch," said Murphy. "We’ve been through that debate and we might be going through that debate again."

The information the courts considered is seven years old at this point, she said.

"It’s an old permit and it needs better limits," said Murphy.

But, according to Zoli, Entergy has been conducting ongoing analyses of the river and its aquatic population and that information will also be presented when ANR begins to consider whether Yankee’s cooling system should be closed or open cycle or both.

"If they want to move forward and discuss intake issues, we welcome the discussion," said Zoli.

She said in the summer, when the river has the most fish in it, the cooling towers are used during, thus minimizing the plant’s overall effect.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.