The liberal Vermont legislature is quite possibly about to vote a death sentence for Vermont Yankee, the source of a third of the state's electricity. If it does so, this will be first time in American history that politicians voted to shut down a safe, reliable operating nuclear reactor. In fact, Vermont is the only state in the union where legislators have ever given themselves the power to order a shutdown.
The anti-nuke people, led by Senate President Peter Shumlin, have for years been trying to shut down Vermont Yankee solely because they believe nuclear energy to be an unsafe and indeed immoral blight on humanity.
In recent years Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, since 2002 the licensee of the plant, has given encouragement to its opponents. The Vernon plant has had a series of maintenance embarrassments - none of them consequential, but together enough to give the public the idea that the plant is a threat to fish, groundwater, bystanders, and future generations. Most recently, the opponents seized on a careless statement by an Entergy vice president (now departed) to charge that the company was lying about the existence of underground piping.
Let's look at the consequences if Shumlin's forces succeed in voting Vermont Yankee off the island.
By late 2012 the cheapest and most reliable third of Vermont's electricity will disappear. There is zero possibility that it can be replaced by any believable combination of conservation, wind turbines, solar panels, cow power, and landfill methane. Moreover, the wind and solar kilowatts come with a price tag from three to five times the price of Vermont Yankee's nuclear electricity. Furthermore, keeping the power grid steady when a third of the supply comes from unreliable sources remains an unsolved engineering problem.
We might be able to double the power purchased from HydroQuebec - if its management has forgiven Vermont for its ill-advised lawsuit aimed at breaking its supply contract after the ice storm of 1998. But that would leave Vermont with 2/3 of its power from a single supplier, not a good idea.
More likely, we would end up going to the New England electric grid operator (ISO) and asking it to send up whatever we need from wherever they can find it - mainly coal burning plants - at whatever price they can get it for. This would not only be expensive, but it would defeat our self-imposed goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions back to 75 percent of 1990 levels by 2012, and 50 percent by 2028.
In 2002 ENVY and the PSB agreed that after decommissioning the Yankee site would become a "greenfield", such as the Abenaki once roamed. That will cost an estimated $900 million.
Since there is only $427 million currently in the decommissioning trust fund, the plant will have to go into SAFSTOR for a decade or two until the fund's earnings grow to cover the work. That might produce an opportunity even after an ill-advised legislative death sentence.
SAFSTOR is estimated to cost about $40 million per decade, for monitoring and security. Ten years after 2012, when much of the residual radioactivity has disappeared, the reactor core and piping systems would be removed. All the spent fuel rods would be removed to a storage area.
By 2022 new Generation IV nuclear systems ought to be on line. With the Yankee site's good location, 125 acres, rail spur, cooling towers, switchyard, security, shops, and land use permits intact, what better place to site an Integrated Fast Reactor, coupled with a pyroprocessing facility to recover the 95 percent of energy stored in spent fuel rods? Or a high temperature Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, whose very hot steam facilitates efficient electrolysis to produce hydrogen for our non-polluting fuel cell vehicles?
Thirty four Republican legislators, led by Rep. Pat O'Donnell of Vernon, have introduced a resolution (JRH41) that envisions such a conversion, notes that President Obama is a new fan of advanced nuclear energy, and recognizes the importance of the high-skill jobs that would come with a new generation reactor station in Vermont. It calls on the legislature and PSB to start planning for it now - regardless of whether Vermont Yankee is relicensed.
And here's a kicker: not having to "greenfield" the plant in Vernon in, say, 2022 would make it unnecessary to spend a ton of money - possibly into the hundreds of millions of dollars. If the current PSB order remains in force, the licensee would have to return any leftover funds after decommissioning to ratepayers. If the plant is converted to a new use, that provision could be amended, and the excess used to restore the Unemployment Insurance fund for years.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).