(Host) Commentator Timothy McQuiston reflects on the debate over the future of the Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon.
(McQuiston) Vermont needs the extra electricity that a beefed up Entergy Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant could produce. The Public Service Board agrees. They recently approved what is called an uprate for the Vernon reactor. They also wanted the NRC to do an independent checkup of the plant to make sure it can handle the extra load.
The extra power and the inspection are both good ideas. As predicted, however, the NRC said NO to the independent inspection. That wasn’t a surprise. But it was a surprise that they ruled so quickly.
And the timing was ironic. The announcement was made the day after the 25th anniversary of the Three Mile Island disaster.
While Governor Douglas and the Legislature are trying to find a way to strong-arm the NRC into an independent inspection, the NRC, or Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has the last say on all things nuclear. And they’ve been in no mood lately to undertake such an inspection.
Meanwhile, there’s little doubt the NRC will sign off on the uprate. The uprate would allow Vermont Yankee to boost its power output by 20 percent. The plant still has plenty of capacity to do that. The new power generation would probably start early next year. Vermont Yankee would spend 60 million dollars, or more, to get the plant ready. And that’s cheap, really, for an extra 110 megawatts.
And a good deal for ratepayers. The new power would be added to the grid at a relatively low cost and, theoretically, help hold down the rising cost of electricity. Prices for fossil fuels are spiking right now, with no relief in sight. Alternative energy sources, even if they someday prove to be cost-effective, will not be ready any time soon.
Vermont Yankee, meanwhile, is scheduled to close down in the year 2012, after 40 years of operation. That’s not very far away. And even if the license is extended beyond that, the plant will close down in the not-too-distant future. So, we might as well take advantage of Yankee, as long as the plant is up to it.
The plant is regularly inspected by both the NRC and by Vermont Yankee staff. And the uprate would trigger more inspections. The independent review would have come from outside both Yankee and the NRC to ensure, as much as possible, a sober and non-partisan review.
The position of the NRC is that the on-going inspection process works well and an independent inspection would be very expensive and that’s true. But an independent inspection on Maine Yankee almost ten years ago led to the closing of that plant. Even an expensive independent inspection would seem to be a no-brainer. But it’s unlikely to happen to happen.
Vermont gets about a third of its power from Vermont Yankee, and another 30 percent from Hydro-Quebec; two big eggs in one basket. Probably too big. We need to diversify. But for now, we need Vermont Yankee.
And what about that Three Mile Island anniversary? Well, I don’t know if this will reassure you or not, but TMI was a new plant, and Yankee has been in service for over 30 years.
This is Timothy McQuiston.
Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.