Can Shumlin’s Arguments Against Vermont Yankee Pass the “Sniff Test”?

The State of Vermont and their Governor Peter Shumlin want to shut down Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant.  Unfortunately for their cause, only the Federal Government, in this case the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the legal authority to regulate nuclear plant safety.  In March the NRC granted the plant permission to operate for another 20 years.

Shumlin and his followers don’t like that.  They really want the plant shut down.  In fact, it will be a major political defeat for Shumlin if he looses this fight against the evil foreigners from Louisiana.  Plus, if he fails, he’ll renege on a campaign promise he made to all the anti-nuclear activists that gravitated to his cause.

But they can’t shut the plant down for SAFTEY concerns because they don’t have that authority AND because the plant is undeniably safe.  You see, the NRC has a very structured and systematic process for determining whether or not a plant is being operated safely and Vermont Yankee passes with flying colors.  In fact, much to the chagrin of Pete Shumlin, VY consistently gets some of the highest safety marks of the 104 commercial reactors in the USA!

So what does the state of Vermont say?  “Oh we’re not trying to regulate SAFETY!  We’re concerned over RELIABILITY and the ECONOMICIS of the nuclear plant.  That’s why we want it shut down!”

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment on the legal virtuosity of Shumlin’s claims.  Instead, why not exercise a more basic test we can all understand: the “sniff test.”

I’m sure Governor Shumlin knows what the sniff test is.  After all, he grew up on a dairy farm.

One of several Internet dictionaries defines a sniff test like this:

Noun

sniff test (plural sniff tests): An informal reality check of an idea or proposal, using one’s common sense or sense of propriety.

In the small town in Indian where I was raised we’re a bit more blunt.  We say if an argument smells like manure it probably is, and therefore it would fail the sniff test.

So let’s look at Vermont’s claims that it would shut down Vermont Yankee nuclear plant because of economic and reliability concerns.

First the facts of the economic case:

  • in negotiations with the state, Vermont Yankee agreed to sell electricity to Vermont utilities at lower rates than it would charge customers in neighboring states.
  • The plant employs more than 600 full time employees whose payroll adds $50 million per year to the local economy.
  • Each year Entergy, the plant’s owner donates approx. $370,00 to local charities.
  • If the plant is allowed to run for an additional 20 years it would add over $2 billion in additional income to Windham County and the state of Vermont.
  • Also, rate payers would benefit because Entergy agreed to a revenue sharing plan with Vermont utilities who would pass the savings on to the customers.

All in all, this is a very sweet deal.  This is particularly true when you compare it to the alternative of importing more expensive electricity from other states, most of which is generated by burning natural gas.  Vermont would LOVE to replace Vermont Yankee with solar and wind power, but that’s a fantasy.  What minuscule amounts of solar or wind energy they might get would be priced many times higher than Vermont Yankee’s electricity.  More likely they would import energy from Seabrook Nuclear Plant in neighboring NH.  In fact, at least one VT utility already has plans to do that (how’s that for classic NIMBYism?)!

Finally, people opposed to VY like to claim they’ll get stuck with the cost of decommissioning the plant.  That just means they don’t understand what it means to be in a DEREGULATED electricity market.  Vermont Yankee is a “merchant generator” and does not have the legal right to pass on expenses to rate payers. It sells power to customers and it’s profits are the simple difference between their costs and their revenues.  Entergy, the plant’s owner is responsible for the cost of decommissioning the plant.  They have a growing fund set aside to do that, and they are a large fortune 500 company with the financial resources to make good on their responsibility.

In summary, the ECONOMICS argument to shut down the plant fails the “sniff test”.  Continuing to run Vermont Yankee, as long as it can be done safely,  makes great economic sense for Vermonters.

Now let’s look at the second part of the question: Is Vermont Yankee RELIABLE?  To do that we need to consider the percentage of full power at which the plant runs on average.  In power plant jargon we call this the “capacity factor,” and a perfect score is 100%.

  • Solar panels in “prime sites” run at about 15% capacity factor.  Vermont, with it’s high latitude and long snowy winters would be lucky to get 10%.
  • New wind turbines claim 35% capacity factors, something that has yet to be proven over the long term, but we’ll use that as a point of reference.
  • Hydro power is highly variable.  In some years when there’s good rain and snow the water flows are good and capacity factors can be high.  In drought years hydro plants barely run at all.
  • Gas turbines have the ability to run at high capacity factors but rarely do because of the cost of natural gas (nuclear, hydro and coal are less costly).
  • Now (drumroll please…) for the last five years Vermont Yankee has run at about 93% capacity factor making it by far the most reliable source of electricity in the state of Vermont.

In addition, the New England ISO has repeatedly stated the electrical grid would become unreliable if Vermont Yankee is shutdown.  Thus, not only is the plant reliable on its own accord, when running it helps the entire system be more reliable.

Shumlin’s argument that Vermont Yankee is unreliable is pure fantasy.  This part of the state’s case also fails the sniff test.

So, if Vermont Yankee is providing economic benefit to the state with very little economic risk, and if the plant is the most reliable generator in the region and contributes to electrical grid reliability, the state of Vermont does not have a case.

That is, of course, unless they are really trying to regulate their own version of nuclear SAFETY.  If that’s the case then Vermont’s argument just plain stinks.

John Wheeler

ThisWeekinNuclear.com

References:

  1. Vermont Yankee Economic Impact from Vermont PSB Hearing
  2. Solar Capacity Factor
  3. Wind Capacity Factor
  4. Sniff Test

Author: John Wheeler

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