No Love for Nukes

An op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal is headlined “Let’s Have Some Love for Nuclear Power.” A few environmentalists such as James Lovelock have adopted the same stance. John McCain has proposed a major expansion of nuclear power capacity, and Barack Obama has indicated he is also willing to consider the idea. Yet proponents of a nuclear renaissance may want to pay more attention to what has been going on in Vermont before they travel too far on the industry’s bandwagon.

The Green Mountain State is experiencing an uproar over a proposal by Entergy Corp. to extend the operating license of its Vermont Yankee nuke. The generating plant began operation in November 1972 and thus will be 40 years old when the current license expires in 2012. Entergy wants permission to keep the plant going for another 20 years.

This does not sit well with many Vermonters, who are concerned that VY, as the state’s newspapers refer to it, is already showing signs of deterioration. This week a federal panel is hearing testimony in a challenge to the license extension filed by an anti-nuke group called the New England Coalition. The challenge, which is being supported by the State of Vermont, centers on technical issues such as Entergy’s assumptions about metal fatigue.

Although the current hearing will not address them, VY has been plagued by a series of other operating problems, including an incident last year (photo) in which part of a cooling tower collapsed and caused a leak of thousands of gallons of water, though Entergy said that no radioactivity was released. The company put the blame on rotting timbers that had not been inspected properly. Earlier this month, a new cooling tower leak forced Entergy to reduce VY’s output to less than 50 percent of capacity. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein told a Senate committee recently that Entergy has failed to keep up with industry knowledge on cooling tower failures.

Entergy has also been getting grief from state lawmakers, who are in a powerful position based on the fact that Vermont, unlike other states, gives its legislators veto power over nuke license extensions. Earlier this year, the legislature passed a bill tightening Entergy’s obligations to a fund that would pay for the eventual decommissioning of the nuke. This was prompted by concerns that a plan by Entergy to place ownership of VY in the hands of a new entity would make the fund less secure and increase the chances that the state would end up paying much of the shutdown costs, projected to be at least $800 million. Gov. Jim Douglas has voiced concerns about VY’s license extension, but he vetoed the decommissioning-fund bill. An angry Vermonter showed his displeasure with the veto by throwing a cream pie in the governor’s face at a Fourth of July parade.

Vermont may have its unique practices when it comes to nukes, but the contentious situation there is a taste of what can be expected if the nuclear industry – and particularly a company such as Entergy – continues trying to build new plants or extend the life of existing ones into old age.

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