Time to put away old differences
It is just a year now since Entergy Corporation announced that it would be closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at the end of 2014.
Arguments continue to swirl across the Internet and in print about the wisdom of sending old faithful off to the glue factory.
"Is Vermont Stupid?" read one recent headline in a national nuclear journal. Commentaries and letters continue to query how activists will now replace the carbon-free baseload power that they so recklessly eliminated. On the flip side, advice regarding how to shut down your local nuke Vermont-style has been relentlessly emanating out of these mountains from the day of the announcement.
Antagonisms thus preserved can only serve to continue to divide what should be a community of stakeholders united in their strong interest in the safe wind-down and retirement of Vermont Yankee, prompt disposition of its nuclear fuel in secure storage, and best possible decommissioning outcomes.
All of us should be hitting the reset button on our response to Entergy's announcement to something more akin to Gov. Peter Shumlin's "I am willing to work with you" approach.
Entergy, for its part, neither blamed anyone nor did it credit anyone for contributing to its decision to close Yankee. Instead, Entergy took full responsibility, with only one small swipe at regional supply and demand regulators for what Entergy claimed was purely a business decision. Even though we firmly suspect that the close-it sentiments of the governor, the Legislature, and the demonstrators cannot have gone entirely unnoticed, we are willing to settle that Entergy honored its corporate responsibility to give priority consideration to the the plant's profitability.
One reason that New England Coalition is comfortable with Entergy's claim is that it fits neatly into a set of considerations for continued operation that we laid out in our first clash with Entergy when it offered to buy Yankee 13 years ago. Entergy was mistaken, we surmised, in assuming that they it economically and safely squeeze profit out of the plant by increasing its maximum thermal power when the canny, experienced, home-grown Vermont Yankee nuclear power company found that it could not. Claimed economies of synergy, with teams of shared experts roving Entergy's several scattered nukes failed in the first few months of Entergy's takeover when operators reported the failure of VY safety-related equipment that had in fact never been specified or installed in this particular plant. The company's pride and the confidence of its backers took a drubbing with a series of highly attention-grabbing failures: a generator short, hydrogen burn and transformer fire; a cooling tower collapse, and the off-gas treatment system tritium leak ... all indicative of failed maintenance.
New England Coalition pointed Entergy, Vermont decision-makers, and regulators to the uniform experience of other small New England reactors where in the 1990s decisions were made in favor of shutdown because the cost of maintenance (read, safety) precluded much in the way of profit: Yankee Rowe, Millstone I, Connecticut Yankee, and Maine Yankee.
What Entergy Vermont Yankee failed to do was to effectively distinguish itself from the foregoing sister plants and it failed to recognize the similarities between each plant's physical condition and market realities, which we had been pointing to all along. Entergy Vermont Yankee also failed to avoid entirely the heavy cost of federal safety regulation when New England Coalition intervened for both the power uprate and license renewal to force compliance. In fact the only occasion where we could find record of anyone's having penetrated the company's thick skin to affect its business decisions in any way was on April 10, 2011 (the day before the Fukushima accident). An NEC Motion prompted Entergy's lead attorney to complain "The absence of a final decision in this proceeding is not only causing substantial harm to Vermont Yankee's ability to do business as a merchant plant and acting as a detriment to employee retention, recruitment and morale, but also could prejudice proceedings under Vermont law related to the plant's continued operation."
In sum, while we saw it as our job to lead Entergy to see what other New England plants saw from the get-go, on Aug. 27, 2013, they had their own epiphany. Then Entergy Vermont Yankee, having beaten Vermont flat on federal preemption issues, purchased a certificate that restores its good corporate citizenship, distributed the requisite largess, and retreated behind its razor wire from where it has promised to talk in good faith with Vermont officials about the end state of Vermont Yankee so long as Entergy remains in total control of every important aspect of final operations and decommissioning. Rather than encourage Entergy to put together a decommissioning advisory panel, the state is convening one of its own, thus excusing Entergy from the necessity of entering into a social contract that would oblige the company to be responsive to its guest members. Entergy owes the state's panel nothing and they will continue to say what or as little as they please.
There remains a slim chance though for community and stakeholder participation in decommissioning, but only if stakeholders can become a community of stakeholders. That can happen if we agree that regardless of our past positions, it was Entergy's independent decision to close VY, and we can move directly on to identifying mutual concerns.
Raymond Shadis is technical consultant for the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, which is celebrating its 43rd year of nuclear safety advocacy.
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