Later is now: A world beyond Vermont Yankee
Peter Mallary | February 07,2010
Even though opinions are my primary business, one thing I have never had much to say about is Vermont Yankee — at least not until recently. For years I heard the arguments of the vehemently anti-nuke, paralleled by those who predicted a power calamity if we lost the plant's output. Truth be told, I have been in denial about the whole business. I figured that the plant had been built, power was flowing and we could worry about it later.
Well now is later.
And like a lot of us I find myself clinging to the sidehill of a steep learning curve. What does it mean if the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closes as scheduled in 2012? If the plant does shut down how will we replace the power we lose? Will the lights go out? Will we be plagued by power shortages and brown outs? Will our electric bills skyrocket?
As someone who has sat on the sidelines of this debate I thought I'd try to answer some of these questions. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to think through what the world might look like if the plug is pulled on Vermont Yankee.
There are good things to say about nuclear energy. President Obama has been saying some of them just lately. In certain ways nuclear power is very clean. Its carbon footprint is less than fossil fuel alternatives. It is also relatively consistent and predictable in its generation.
But other aspects of nuclear fission are not so clean. The Vermont Yankee plant — along with a number of others nationally — is leaking tritium, a nasty carcinogenic isotope. As contamination goes this is one of the less dangerous options, but it is serious contamination nonetheless. And this plant's parent company, Entergy, has developed a serious problem about telling the truth.
For the past forty years the Vermont Yankee plant has been providing a substantial amount of power to Vermonters. At the moment that number is about 35 percent to 40 percent of our total. If the plant was to be relicensed the company has offered a new contract which would supply less than half of what they do now at a price which is higher than at present. If we were to give up this source of 15 percent to 20 percent of our power — 115 mega-watts per year — how would we replace it?
The cheapest way by far is energy conservation and increased efficiency. And we are already seeing the effects of that. Demand for power in Vermont is actually decreasing. We used about 27 mega-watts less power in 2009 than in 2008.
But here's another possibility. Studies show that Vermont forests could supply wood for five 50 mega-watt biomass plants. Just two plants would supply 100 mega-watts — and provide as many as 500 good jobs.
And then there is wind. Roughly 200 windmills — 2 mega-watts each operating at a 30 percent capacity factor — spread around the state could provide 115 mega watts.
Perhaps most importantly the New England power market has been running excesses of thousands of mega watts, so simply buying market power is another choice.
Of course, all of these can be mixed, as well.
Every one of these suggestions has its own problems. How much efficiency can we really anticipate? What is the environmental impact of biomass plants and how quickly can they be ramped up? The same is true with wind or solar options. And buying from the market always has the risk of volatile price shifts. But it is actually the last of the options above that is the most telling. The future lies in a combination of these various resources.
And that is what the leaders of Vermont's largest utilities think. Last week representatives of those utilities testified in front of the Senate Finance Committee. Both Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service offered future plans with diversified portfolios including options like the ones mentioned above.
They were asked to estimate the likely hikes in electric rates if Yankee came offline. The hikes they predicted ranged from 5 percent to 7.5 percent, though the possibility of that reaching 10 percent over a period of years was mentioned. To put this in context it helps to remember that the average monthly electric bill in Vermont is about $90. The worst case 10 percent scenario would bring that bill up to $99.
There are those who believe that the market alone could bring in the necessary power at less than the Yankee contract. At the moment that is certainly true. There are pretty strong indications that the power market will continue to be good for buyers for some years to come. But there is no guarantee in any marketplace. Nevertheless, some argue persuasively that low market prices create an opportunity for Vermont to close the Yankee plant and move ahead quickly with alternative and renewable energy sources.
So back to my steep learning curve.
I now know that the lights will not go out. I know that there is power out there and that we can create and/or get access to it. And I am pretty certain that my electric bill will not spin out of control. These are all good things.
For the purpose of this discussion I have left aside some of the less appealing things about this particular plant; the fact that it has run for the length of time it was designed to run; that we still need to deal with the cost of closing the plant at some point; that a means of safe and permanent disposal of spent fuel remains a mystery; and that there still remains the chance of a catastrophic accident. Entergy needs to make a positive case for the plant, a case that answers many questions going forward. That'll be a tough sell given their recent track record on honesty. At the moment they are just trying to regain an ounce of credibility.
And my opinion?
Wherever you may come from on this complicated issue, we are staring at the moment of truth on Vermont Yankee. Nuclear power may very well be in our national future and interest. Certainly Barack Obama thinks so. But not worn out nuclear power. The fact is that Vermont Yankee is a tired plant with tritium trouble and untrustworthy leadership.
It is time to move on.