Is This Nuclear Plant Safe?

Anonymous photographs raise new alarms about the Vermont nuclear reactor.

Comments (8)
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Vermont Yankee: A collapsed cooling tower, spewing water that was supposed to cool the plant's reactor.

This picture was taken by an anonymous photographer on or after August 21, when this cooling tower at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant near Brattleboro collapsed, spewing water that was supposed to cool the plant’s reactor.

Days later, on Friday, August 30, plant technicians got another evil surprise: the plant went into automatic shutdown while they were testing a turbine valve.

Vermont Yankee, now 35 years old, puts out 610 megawatts of power, nearly 120 percent of the output rate it was designed for, and its owners, Entergy Nuclear of Mississippi, have applied for its license to be extended until 2032, 20 years past its current expiration date of 2012. The New England Coalition, a nukewatching organization based in southern Vermont, has warned for years that the plant is like an old car being souped up and driven at excessive speeds. The cooling system in particular has been the subject of much concern. After the tower partly disintegrated, the Vermont Congressional delegation called for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do an exhaustive investigation of the condition of all the cooling towers at the plant.

The Vermont state Legislature is worried as well. Its members are asking the same question as antinuclear activists: if this could happen after Entergy conducted and documented inspections of the towers, what other structural flaws at the plant may have gone without being detected when inspections were done?

While Entergy dwells on the fact that the tower collapse per se wasn’t a threat to the public health, others—especially those who remember the transformer fire that broke out three years ago—say that’s not the point; the danger is that the inspection system is untrustworthy and the company has a demonstrated inability to keep the plant properly maintained and functioning.

“Even with the inspections, the tower failed,”said Deb Katz, executive director of Franklin County-based Citizens Awareness Network. “That’s what this is about. This is wood. You notice wood rotting.”

In the aftermath of the collapse of the tower, the NRC has admitted that the application process for the plant’s license extension may be delayed. Until now the NRC seemed to be on a steady march toward approval of that extension, but the cooling tower collapse—which is difficult to minimize with the anonymous photos circulating on the Internet—has clearly put a large rock in what appeared to be a clear road to license extension approval for Entergy.

If you want your Congressman to hear your reaction to a picture of a nuclear power plant’s cooling tower falling apart like an old garage, call the Capitol operator in Washington at 202-224-3121, ask for his office and tell him what he needs to know. Or call the NRC’s public affairs officer on this case, Neil Sheehan, at 610-337-5331.

Comments (8)
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So the sky is falling again? Think of the plant as what it is:nuclear, steam, electric. Problems in non nuclear parts are not good, and may or may not tell us something about management. Careful examination is needed. After all, I did not see the Advocate calling for abandonment of air travel after the plane caught fire in Japan, and it was traced to a loose bolt. The airlines were required to check bolts in planes of that type in a few days, but planes could still fly before the checks. Where are the Advocate's tears for the passengers who flew those few days that "might" die? All life has risk-benefit calculations. Nuclear power is the same. My 1992 car is not the same one I bought. Lots of replaced parts. VY isthe same, plus parts replaced or rebuilt fo the uprate. The Advocate should comment on the fact that China is placing a new coal burning plant in service every week, and the US has 160 planned or being built.
Posted by Howard Shaffer on 9.5.07 at 13:21
Sure the Entergy workers neglected to properly grease a valve and the reactor went into automatic shutdown. Cut em some slack ? will you? Sure one of the 22 cooling towers collapsed 10 days earlier with pictures nearly as spectacular as the transformer fire of a few years ago. I am surprised no one has related this yet to the issue being adjudicated before the Vermont Environmental court now. The primary reason Entergy sought to increase the temperature of the discharge from the Vernon reactor into the CT river was to not have to use the cooling towers. Using the towers costs Entergy electricity (read money) to power the towers themselves. I am of the opinion that Entergy knew the old towers might not handle the increased heat passing through them as the result of the 20% increase in power they won from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2006, thus they would rather dump it into the river. I am alarmed by the ways Entergy can impress us with their technological expertise in fleet management of complex nuclear reactors while simultaneously neglecting to grease a valve, or monitor closely the sounds of aging structures that support their cooling towers. Yes old wood creaks. That cooling tower structure gave warning signs that were ignored. The longer VT and the world continues to invest in nuclear energy, the farther we are from finding sustainable solutions while increasing significant environmental risk we expose ourselves to. Howard Shaffer is pro nuclear - make no mistake. He worked in the industry a long time. The choice is not between Coal and nuclear. That is NUKESPIN. The choice is sustainability or shortsightedness. Our choices must lead us to sustainablity. Conservation, renewables and efficiency are needed... - VY can be replaced easily using this mixture.
Posted by gfv on 9.5.07 at 18:48
>Conservation, renewables and efficiency are needed... - VY can be replaced easily using this mixture. Please go into detail of your "magic bullet" here. There is a reason that they were pushing this reactor to 610 Megawatts. No one is particularly conserving, demand is in fact increasing. This is not a problem that can be solved some time in the future - it needs to be solved today. Realistically it is either coal or nuclear. Hydro-electric is not an option - unless you want to lease the CT river from New Hampshire (Vermont declared it as New Hampshire's a long time ago for monetary purposes) What exactly do you mean by "renewables and efficiency" - it seems like ENVIROSPIN. Are you proposing to replace every lightbulb in VT with CF? ...Every outdated appliance with new ones? It is just not going to happen anytime soon. The choice is not "sustainability or shortsightedness" but "reality or dreaming." Right now, despite their reputation, nuclear power plants are the best thing we have environmentally. Their impact is far less then the other realistic alternative - coal. We do not need more coal plants.
Posted by Sean on 9.9.07 at 6:55
Um, Sean? Building nuclear power plants ties up huge amounts of capital for many years, starving other quicker, cheaper, and safer solutions for the money they need for development and deployment. It's also starving consumers for the money to buy better appliances because they're too busy paying for the nukes in their power bills. Nuclear power in the US was born on life support, and hasn't drawn one breath on its own since. Without massive taxpayer subsidies the industry would've collapsed of its own shortcomings many years ago. Right from its overhyped "Electricity too cheap to meter" genesis, this technology has guzzled money which, had it been spent more-productively on other technologies, would have left us in far better shape than we are now. Nuclear power had its chance for decades - instead it became the largest commercial failure in the history of American industry.
Posted by Dave on 9.9.07 at 7:22
I keep hearing of these "other technologies" ...yet not one feasible one gets brought to the plate. What is it going to be... solar, wind, hydro-electric, thermal energy from the core? None of them feasible for a VY replacement. The bottom line is that until "other technologies" become feasible - the best solution for today is "current technology." ...So then, another coal fired plant for you? ...and not just another one, but a new one with a long lifespan ahead of it? I am just trying to be realistic here. Bring on another technology that can deliver 610, 620, realistically 1000 Megawatts as the future will dictate the need for - and I will fully support it. Saying that we can solve this being completely green, conserving and increasing efficiency is a pipe-dream.
Posted by Sean on 9.9.07 at 7:56
I do not know Mr Shaffer, but anyone who accuses him of spin ought to point another finger at the author of this article. Either insufficient research was made in its composition, or else the author has a desire to tell an incomplete story to further his or others' agendas. Either way I am disappointed. First of all, the causal comment "...610 megawatts of power, nearly 120 percent of the output rate it was designed for..." is a gross conceptual error. VY does run at a higher power than *originally* designed, but it does so because of significant work made to install larger plant components that allowed it to handle more steam (and therefore more power). There wasn't just an arbirtary decision made someplace to raise power without first considering the change needed. The analogy of "an old car being souped up and driven at excessive speeds" is complete rubbish. It is equating hundreds of engineers, technicians, designers, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to a backwoods redneck running 'shine from his still under the nose of Revenue Men. Maybe "souped up" is a way to put it (though still highly inaccurate), but there's dozens of people watching and evaluating every aspect of the engine, even before the new headers or manifolds are bolted on. This power uprate is typical of many nuclear power plants. As originally designed, a certain amount of margin had to be considered for the indicating equipment, or for components that processed the steam from the reactor to the turbine and back. As technology, materials, and metohdology improved, the plants could raise their capacity safely. According to the NRC this has resulted in a collective increase in capability equivalent to four nuclear power plants (4,183 MW-electric). This is effectively four less power plants that needed to be built. Secondly, the cooling tower in question does not directly cool the reactor. It condenses the steam created by the reactor, where it becomes water to be pumped back into the vessel. That water, not the cooling tower water, keeps it cool. If the cooling tower capacity is diminished, the plant operators simply reduce power, which will reduce the steam rate, which will allow the damaged cooling tower able to handle the condensing process. If it's bad enough there is plenty of time to shut down the reactor and not cause any trouble. We are right to search for better alternatives. We are right to question whether or not Nuclear is a way to go as part of our energy mix. We are right to hold those companies who choose to generate power, and the regulatory agency responsible to watch them, accountable in their inspection processes. However, the fearmongering and deliberate manipulation of information presented as Gospel Truth to the people of Vermont and the rest of the country, does an incredible disservice of epic proportions and insults our intelligence.
Posted by Joe on 9.9.07 at 10:24
Here are some DETAILS for Sean or Joe HOW MANY LIGHT BULBS DOES IT TAKE TO CHANGE A NUCLEAR PLANT? By Michael J. Daley Many of my friends, neighbors, and even strangers have said to me recently: "I don't like Vermont Yankee, but I just don't see how we can shut it down. Where would the power come from?" They turn to me because in 18 years of activism, my work has focused on sharing a realistic picture of why nuclear power is unnecessary. I have spoken about energy issues to over 25,000 people throughout New England and written books on solar and nuclear power. What would it take to replace Vermont Yankee? If you paid any attention to Vermont Yankee propaganda during the recent relicensing debate, you'd think the task was monumental--harder than putting a man on the moon, or building an atomic bomb! After all, we're talking atomic power here, right? Yeeessss, but actually, Vermont Yankee is pretty dinky, as is Vermont's entire electricity picture compared to New England as a whole: we represent only 10% of total electric usage. This is so small that only ONE modern combined cycle natural gas plant could supply Vermont's entire electricity needs--just one plant for the whole state. [I don't advocate that, because we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket, nor become dependent on a non-renewable fuel source.] A look at the numbers will clarify the dimensions of our task if we want to leave nuclear power to history. Vermont Yankee generates about 500 MW (MW means megawatt=one million watts). 50%, or 250 MW, is supplied to Vermont. The rest goes out of state. So half of the problem disappears instantly--a downcountry responsibility. Believe me, with a $170 million renewable energy fund, they have the resources to solve their share of the problem. 250 MW represents 30% of Vermont's present electricity use. A Public Service Board study determined that energy efficiency could reduce Vermont's electricity use by 20%, or 170 MW! How can a light bulb do all that? Energy efficient light bulbs are only the public symbol for an amazing diversity of powerful technologies that allow us to do exactly what we were doing before, only using far less energy. Even many environmentalists do not appreciate the enormous waste of energy in our society that could be prevented without requiring any change in lifestyle. No hardships, no sacrifices, no compromises--simply the intelligent application of our finest technical knowledge. Just how powerful are these technologies? A friend bought a new refrigerator and the moment she plugged it in her monthly electric bill dropped 40%! A Las Vegas casino was spening $18,000 per MONTH to light its glitzy sign. When they replaced the old bulbs with efficient models, the electric bill for the sign dropped 90%, to $1800. An Energy Star clothes washer uses 60% less energy and 36% less hot water than conventional washers. SEVCA's home insulation program reduces electricity use in homes with electric heat by 54%. Efficiency is the hands-down environmental option. It eliminates harmful impacts by reducing the need for creating energy in the first place. It's also the economic winner. In the year 2000, Vermont invested $5.4 million in efficiency and saved customers $17.7 million in electric costs--a 200% return on investment. Compare that to the rate on your latest certificate of deposit! For every dollar spent in the SEVCA program, $5 in economic benefits are returned to the community. I haven't even touched on industrial and commercial technologies, such as co-generation, or the potential for solar assisted devices like solar hot water which can reduce electric hot water heater demand by 50%, even in Vermont. And for just one per cent additional construction cost, passive solar heating added to a new home will result in energy savings of 50% over a conventional home. Returning to our task, if we deduct the 170 MW efficiency savings from Vermont Yankee's account, we are left with 85 MW of actual supply needed when the plant shuts down. 85 MW is a very small amount of power, so small that we don't really have to talk about where it will come from. The grid can supply that in an eye-blink, but of course, that would preserve the same old environmental impacts. Vermont can do better. We might, in fact, use windmills. The Searsburg windmills generate 11 MW. Eight more facilities like that would equal the needed capacity. Are there eight communities in Vermont that would trade the sight of windmills for the production of nuclear waste? Seems plausible. Alarmist would have you believe every hilltop will sprout propellers, but not only is that unnecessary, how could it happen in the first place? No one is proposing the suspension of our environmental laws to force communities to put up windmills---or any other kind of renewable energy project! And could windmills really win the mountain ugliness award going head to head with ski slopes and lifts? Personally and ethically, I prefer small negative local and present day impacts to shifting the consequences of our power use to generations yet unborn. I believe many Vermonters feel a similar responsibility to the future. By the way, because the wind doesn't blow all the time and Vermont Yankee often runs 24 hours per day, the total output from 85 MW of windmills won't do the whole job. The shortfall could be made up from buying green power from the grid, a mix of other instate renewable sources, from more ambitious efficiency goals, or we might use wood. Wood-fired power generation is a proven technology in Vermont, with the ___ MW Mcneil plant in Burlington entering its x year of operation. Wood is the ideal local fuel. It is renewable, creates local jobs, and keeps energy dollars circulating in state (presently 80 cents of every fuel dollar leaves Vermont). The wood should be supplied from sustainable yield forestry. That way this kind of power plant has NO impact on global warming---the new growth recaptures the CO2 released by burning the wood in the first place. Elegant. So how many light bulbs does it take to change a nuclear plant? One--the one that lights up in your mind when you understand the options represented by modern technology. Michael J. Daley lives in Westminster and writes using a solar-powered computer before the uprate and sale to Entergy. Personally do not like the way the PR team of Entergy rouses the masses (read workers and families) to the defense of the reactor. Nuclear energy is not needed in Vermont. Sean, Joe, Howard (who I know) - my guess is they are all employees or related to the industry...
Posted by gfv on 9.17.07 at 9:26
Posted by mirc on 5.16.09 at 15:52



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