To refuel or not to refuel?

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BRATTLEBORO -- Owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant remained silent Friday night about whether they'll invest the $60 million to purchase refueling supplies for a scheduled outage this fall.

On Monday, Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled that Entergy had failed to show that any irreparable harm would befall the company and denied its owners a preliminary injunction that would keep the plant running until their lawsuit against the state has worked its way through the courts.

During the hearing last month in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro, John Herron, Chief Nuclear Officer for Entergy, testified that if the plant isn't able to refuel, it would be "highly likely" that Vermont Yankee would have to be shut down.

The next refueling outage is scheduled for Oct. 8 and Herron testified that a decision about refueling needed to be made by July 23.

Larry Smith, manager of communications for Vermont Yankee, said the company wasn't going to make a comment on the fuel purchase.

"There won't be a decision today, and there probably won't be a decision tomorrow," Smith told the Reformer.

Herron said that the decision to refuel could be delayed up to 30 days without too much harm, but any longer would require the fuel core design to be re-analyzed.

The fuel is specially fabricated for each reactor and wouldn't be readily transferable to any of Entergy's other nuclear plants around the country, which makes the investment risky, Herron said.

"I have to make a $60 million investment here that I may, in fact, not even really be able to recover," Herron told the judge. He concluded by saying, "We may have to actually start looking at a permanent shutdown."

Entergy lawyer Kathleen Sullivan echoed those concerns the next day. She called the July 23 fuel order "a make-or-break decision on the life of the plant."

If Entergy decides to go ahead with the purchase, it could give fodder to critics who have accused the company of making misleading statements.

Many of Entergy's troubles in Vermont have stemmed from revelations in 2010 that radioactive tritium was leaking from underground pipes at the Vernon reactor that plant officials had previously told lawmakers and Vermont regulators did not exist there.

Raymond Shadis, technical advisor the for New England Coalition, a nuclear watchdog group, suggested that Entergy officials may not even know if they're going to refuel yet.

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"We do know that in the end it will be a business decision, driven by considerations of financial risk," Shadis wrote in a statement.

He said that it could be possible for Entergy to regain its investment before March 21, 2012, the expiration date of the plant's initial 40-year operating license.

Vermont Yankee earlier this year won federal approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 20-year license extension which is why its suing in U.S. District Court to block the state's efforts to shut the plant down.

Shadis said Entergy's management style is known to be risk-taking and aggressive.

"They are used to a pliant NRC and used to bullying their way past concerned citizens and regulators wherever they do business, but that just doesn't work in New England with its speak-up democratic traditions," he wrote. "Bucking public sensibilities here costs money, lots of money, pure and simple."

NEC President Ned Childs said the decision to refuel could be Entergy's last financial decision regarding the nuclear plant in Vernon.

"Vermont Yankee hasn't met its allocated maintenance costs, meaning it hasn't turned a profit for the last three years," Childs said. "One more unanticipated large expense, such as a new steam dryer or modifications resulting from a Fukushima accident inquest, is likely to sink the ship. I can see no rational business reason for Entergy to persist."

Childs suggested Entergy officials take the advice from Kenny Rogers' song "The Gambler" and cut their losses and walk away.

Shadis agreed, stating that closing the plant is no longer a question of if but when and how.

"Entergy has placed itself in the untenable position of trying to operate an antiquated, aging reactor beyond its design capacity and design life in an alienated and increasingly hostile political and regulatory environment," Shadis wrote. "It's simply unsupportable. Refueling it now is simply letting stubborn wishful thinking get the better of common sense."

The trial on the merits of Entergy's lawsuit against the state is scheduled to begin Sept. 12 in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also released its quarterly findings of the plant on Friday. The report stated there were no findings.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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