Plan to Boost Vermont Nuclear Plant Output Prompts Concern
Oct. 12VERNON, Vt. Amid the protests that have erupted over nuclear power plants in New England, the Vermont Yankee plant here has long operated as an oasis of calm. Perched on the Connecticut River about 10 miles from the Massachusetts border, the 32-year-old reactor provides a third of Vermont's electricity.
But that calm is ending. The plant's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year for permission to boost the plant's output by 20 percent, and both nuclear safety advocates and the state of Vermont itself have risen to oppose the request.
"We are just not satisfied this is safe," said David O'Brien, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, which has asked the regulatory commission for a legal hearing to explain why the power boost would not compromise safety at the plant. A NRC panel will decide as early as this month whether to grant a hearing.
The Vermont dispute is being closely watched outside New England. It marks the first formal challenge to a quiet nationwide push by the energy industry to wring more power out of the nation's aging nuclear plants. No new US plants have been ordered since before Three Mile Island's reactor accident in 1979, and the last reactor was completed in 1996.
But by applying for NRC permission for existing plants to work harder, longer, and more efficiently, owners have been able to increase the output of the nation's 103 reactors by the equivalent of 24 new plants over the last quarter century. Now, an increasing number of plants, including Vermont Yankee, are asking the NRC for more power.
The requests are part of a broad rebirth of nuclear power, which energy companies are embracing again as gas and oil prices soar. The nuclear industry has mounted a lobbying effort to be seen as "green," saying that reactors do not produce global warming gases and other pollutants emitted by fossil fuel plants.
The Bush administration has streamlined the permitting process and created financial incentives for companies exploring whether to build nuclear plants, and the sites of old plants in Mississippi, Illinois and Virginia are being looked at for new reactors.
Yet even in the best-case scenario, it would take more than five years to construct plants, so in the meantime the industry has focused on getting more power from existing facilities, along with increasing their lifespan with license extensions. Before 1998, requests for power boosts were relatively small, increasing power usually by less than 6 or 7 percent. Since then, however, the NRC has approved 12 boosts above that level, and it is expected to rule on 15 more requests in the next four years.
Among New England's five operating reactors, the Pilgrim plant in Plymouth received a 1.5 percent uprate approval last year and is eyeing, but has not applied for, an additional boost of 12 or 13 percent. The plant in Seabrook, N.H., has a request pending for a 5 percent boost.
The other two plants, in Connecticut, are not facing requests for power boosts, called uprates. All New England plants are expected to ask for license extensions in coming years; the operators of two reactors in Connecticut have already applied for their extensions.
Power boosts have been handled with virtually no controversy. But as the size of the power-boost requests have increased, they have drawn the attention of safety advocates who are concerned about the risks of accidents that might cause radiation to be released if aging plants are pushed to work harder.
The Quad Cities plant in Illinois has had several shutdowns related to a 17.8 percent power uprate approved in 2001, according to the NRC.
"These plants were designed for 40 years, and we've seen indications the older they get, the more problems they have," said Paul Blanch, a nuclear engineer and whistleblower who revealed major safety lapses at Connecticut's Millstone plant in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Blanch considers himself a supporter of nuclear power, but is serving as a technical consultant to the New England Coalition, a Brattleboro-based antinuclear group, because he believes Vermont Yankee to be unsafe and wants it to undergo a detailed safety review.
In Vermont, the state's objection is largely focused on a safety credit the NRC must grant to Vermont Yankee if it is to receive permission for the power boost, allowing it to count pressure that builds during an emergency in the containment structure around the reactor as part of its safety mechanism. An NRC guideline states that no credit should be given for the extra containment pressure. Despite that, the NRC has granted 26 of these credits over the years.
Vermont's nuclear engineer came across the discrepancy between the NRC's guideline and practice last year and asked why the agency had ignored its longstanding guideline. O'Brien says it took the NRC eight months to respond, and when it came, the answers were lacking in detail. If the NRC can answer his agency's questions, he said, the state would drop its protest.
NRC officials acknowledge there has been confusion about the issue. They have been developing a new policy on safety credits as they have gained more experience overseeing nuclear plants through the years, but have never formally withdrawn the no-credit guideline. They say they are reviewing Vermont Yankee's request and will deny it if it is in any way unsafe.
"If you look at the amount of work the NRC is going to invest in reviewing this application . . . it's on the order of 4,000 hours," said Neil Sheehan, a NRC spokesman. Beyond that, he said an engineering review is also looking at key safety systems that would be affected by the power upgrade at the plant.
Rob Williams, a spokesman for Entergy, which bought Vermont Yankee in 2002, said engineers conducted a 10-month engineering analysis before determining it was safe to generate more power.
"Our view . . . is that the safety margin is consistent with NRC 1/8guidelines3/8," said Williams.
Meanwhile, critics' concerns have been amplified by a series of recent episodes at the plant, which has had a good safety record. In April, a crack in a vital instrument called a steam dryer had to be repaired and some parts replaced. Later that month, Entergy reported it could not find two radioactive pieces of spent fuel rods. The pieces were located in July. A month earlier, a transformer fire briefly shut the plant.
Williams said paperwork that showed the rods "lost" occurred decades ago when the plant had different owners. The steam dryer, meanwhile, is repaired, he said, and the transformer fire never affected the plant's safety.
In nearby Brattleboro, the plant's recent woes and uprate request have reenergized a weakened antinuclear movement that spent much of the last generation fighting the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire. Hundreds attended a raucous NRC meeting in March about Vermont Yankee's uprate; protesters held placards denouncing the proposal.
"We don't want the power plant at all," said Peter Alexander, executive director of the New England Coalition. He said a combination of energy efficiency and state-owned hydroelectric plants can provide the power Vermont Yankee does.
But as the US consumption of energy grows an estimated 1.8 percent per year through 2025, some analysts believe nuclear power has to be part of the equation. A plant like Vermont Yankee can generate 540 megawatts for less money than all but the most efficient natural gas and hydroelectric plants.
Some nuclear safety advocates agree, saying they only want to be assured all-possible measures are being taken to avoid an accident.
"It's important to understand these safety margins," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. He wants to see new nuclear plants because they will be built with the most modern safety measures. While he is not against power boosts or license extensions, he wants to make sure they are in plants that have been well-maintained.
"We just want it to be safe," he said.
© 2004, The Boston Globe. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.