by Kurt Staudter
Any reader of this column knows that I haven’t exactly been supportive of Vermont Yankee. It’s a funny thing about being a political columnist: You can write for years winning the admiration of a reader only to write a single column where they so fervently disagree with you that you’ve lost them forever. Many of my friends in the labor movement, and my own union the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, thought that I should have taken the side of the company. Their position had merit in that the nuke plant has lots of great middle class jobs, and brings in a boatload of taxes and money to the state economy. There is no doubt that closing the plant will hurt.
That doesn’t change the facts: First off the plant should have never had been operated at levels above what it was designed for – Even though these plants were over-built and could handle being operated at the up-rate of 20%, the trade off in operating a plant near the end of its life at higher levels was a needless gamble with safety. Next, to operate the plant beyond the 40 year design life wasn’t only a breach in public trust, but once again was rolling the dice on safety. Perhaps you could have operated the plant longer without the up-rate, but Entergy got greedy and wanted both. I have no doubt that the skilled workforce and extra scrutiny from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made sure there was no threat to public safety, but as we all know accidents can happen, and I wonder what else could’ve prompted Entergy to walk away after they fought so hard to keep it open – What haven’t they told us?
Since the announcement that the plant was going to close because it was no longer able to compete on price in the deregulated energy marketplace, now we need to turn our attention to what comes next. My job takes me down to the Vernon hydro station just down river from the nuke plant. It’s wild on some winter days: It will be clear and frigid all around the plants and the steam from the cooling towers will condense and turn to a light snow on the hydro plant. As far as I know all of the TransCanada workers at the hydro plant were supportive of the continuing operation of VY. Some live in Vernon and benefit from the taxes Entergy pays, others have friends and family that work at the plant – Either way, now that the plant is closing they all agree that it needs to be decommissioned quickly.
It came as a shock to many that Entergy hasn’t got enough money in the decommissioning fund, and wants now to mothball the plant until the fund grows enough pay for the cleanup of the site. This so-called SAFESTOR option gives Entergy up to 60 years to address decommissioning. My friends in Vernon were outraged. Oh well, that’s what they get for climbing into bed with greedy Entergy.
In this country there are three ways that we decommission a nuclear site: DECON which is the immediate dismantlement of the plant and decontamination of all radioactive parts; SAFESTOR considered to be delayed DECON when you wait to have some of the very radioactive parts “cool down” before it is dismantled; and finally, ENTOMB where the site is left largely intact but encased in concrete and permanently monitored. The three New England plants, Yankee Rowe, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee that have been shut down have all gone through the DECON process and are now considered “Greenfield and open to visitors.” Vermont Yankee was to be next. The plants around the country that are in SAFESTOR are single reactors that are part of multi-reactor plants. For a single plant like VY to be put in SAFESTOR may be a first. Other SAFESTOR plants are on the property of operating reactors with large staffs, and a skeleton crew is being proposed by Entergy for VY. One more thing about SAFESTOR: After the first six years of waiting there is little more to be gained by further delay.
As far as the decommissioning fund, there is no excuse for how this plant, which has now operated past the end of its useful life, doesn’t have a bank account full of money to pay for the cleanup. In fact, it isn’t even close: Estimates put the cleanup at between $800 million and one billion dollars. Entergy has less than $600 million set aside. Oh, and if you think you are going to go after the assets of big bad Entergy to pay for the decommissioning, dream on, VY is in a stand alone limited liability corporation that has only one asset – The plant that’s about to close. Now while the company claims that the plant is no longer economical to run, it hasn’t stopped them from sending over $100 million in profits back to Louisiana each year. There was more than enough money to have properly funded the decommissioning, and I blame state and federal regulators for not holding Entergy’s feet to the nuclear fission fire. If the ratepayers and the taxpayers get stuck with the cost of this cleanup there should be hell to pay.
As far as the $200 million discrepancy in the cost to clean up the site. Entergy claims they only have to remove what’s on the surface. Basements and cellar holes are not their responsibility. Finally, even though the VY supporters claim that the site will never be used again; former VT Dept. of Public Service Commissioner Richard Sedano once told me that the site would be perfect for a combined cycle gas plant. Just once wouldn’t it be nice in this whole Vermont Yankee mess someone would be honest with us.