Thursday, January 6, 2011

Widening the View: From Vermont to Iowa and England

Starting in Vermont

This morning, the Brattleboro Reformer had an interesting and controversial op-ed about Vermont Yankee. Since Howard Shaffer and I had visited the Reformer offices recently to have a background-style talk, I was interested in the editorial.

The op-ed claimed that Vermont Yankee is unlikely to close "on schedule." It pointed out that Entergy could bring several types of lawsuits against the state-ordered closing. Any of these lawsuits could extend the plant license for twenty years (if Entergy wins) or for a couple of years (while the lawsuits wend their way through the courts) even if Entergy doesn't win. The potential suits fall into three categories:

  1. Federal pre-emption. What were all those Vermont Senators doing when they inveighed against the dangers of tritium and insisted the plant must close down? Weren't they aware that radiation safety is an NRC issue, and cannot be decided by a state? The Senators were giving grounds for a lawsuit on pre-emption of the NRC.
  2. Contract violation. Entergy signed a Memorandum of Understanding that said it agreed that it would abide by a Public Service Board issuing (or not issuing) a Certificate of Public Good. After the contract was signed, the Legislature voted itself the privilege of telling the Public Service Board whether or not it could issue that Certificate. This legislative veto power was not in the original contract.
  3. What is an MOU? A Memorandum of Understanding is a contract. On the other hand, with some lawyers getting into the act, an MOU could also be considered non-binding, or it could be considered more binding than the usual contract. Fun for all, I suppose.
I covered many of these topics in two February 2010 blog posts called The Day After the Vote and The Morning After. I discussed pre-emption, contract law, and the possibility of lawsuits. I would call myself a real fortune-teller, except that I expected the lawsuits to begin more-or-less immediately at that time. No lawsuits began. Entergy quite reasonably decided to find and remediate the tritium leak before getting lawyers involved.

There's still time in the future for a lawsuit. At this point, these lawsuit ideas are simply speculation.

Expanding to Iowa

A local blog, Vermont Tiger, discussed the Reformer op-ed in a post Drop Dead Date for Yankee? Vermont Tiger compared the fierce opposition to Vermont Yankee with the general acceptance of the license extension recently granted to Vermont Yankee's sister plant, Duane Arnold in Iowa. Duane Arnold is a 615 megawatt BWR: it even has a low bank of cooling towers, just like Vermont Yankee. (picture above). The Iowa paper describes Duane Arnold as an employer, a provider of taxes, a provider of energy, and a "valuable corporate neighbor."

I appreciate Vermont Tiger for widening my view of how people look at nuclear plants. Too many people in Vermont declare: "We are Vermont and we are very very special. Nothing is quite good enough for us." These people give Vermont a smug problem. Without Vermont Yankee, Vermont will have gas-fired generation, and we will also have a smog problem. Nice to know that Iowa has a different view of nuclear!


And now, looking across the seas, Centrica, a UK gas company, moved into the nuclear market in 2009. They made this video to educate their employees about their investment in the UK nuclear program. This video shows why Britain needs nuclear energy. It also shows why Iowa and Vermont need nuclear energy. Or basically, why the whole world needs nuclear energy.

Images from Wikipedia and NRC.


Anonymous said...

I have a question about 'licensing', and the pre-emption question. I can see the case the the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the sole authority to make decisions regarding nuclear power plants.

However, doesn't *every* business in a state, need a license from that state to do business within the state? I mean, restaurants, barbershops, mechanics, whatever - to do business, don't you need a business license?

Isn't a federal pre-emption lawsuit regarding the nuclear license only one way that the legislature can shut down VY if they want to? If they can't stop them on nuclear regulatory grounds, can't they pass some sort of law that effectively causes Entergy to lose their license to conduct business within the State?

I really think it would be best if Entergy can do *something* to make this not become a war between the State Government and Entergy. I feel like, regarding the pre-emption issue, they might be able to win that battle, but lose the war.

Meredith Angwin said...

Jeff. You are right. Most businesses need a business license, and most power plants need some kind of state certificate, such as a Certificate of Public Good. I say "most" power plants because a small net-metered photovoltaic array doesn't need that, and some other types of small power producers don't need that.

Entergy was fine with signing a contract saying that we will need a Certificate of Public Good from the state PSB to keep operating.

BUT, the idea was that a PSB, a utility judgment board, would give that certificate. That board would judge on all sorts of utility-board-judgment criteria: reliability, cost, any noise or pollution issues, etc. On all those counts, VY is good to be given a certificate. However, the legislature decided that IT had the final word, not those geeky public service board types.

Also, I completely agree. Entergy almost certainly doesn't want to win the battle (we have our certificate) but lose the war. Alas, it is hard to say what action Entergy can take to prevent this from happening.

Anonymous said...

I used to work at Duane Arnold. Back in the 80's, before we had our own site-specific control room simulator, we would send our operating crews to VY for a week each year to train on theirs. My first trip to VY was the first time I had left the Midwest. It was a culture shock.

Ironically, Duane Arnold came very close to experiencing a cooling tower collapse of its own around 2002. The header cracked due sagging caused by a few rotted support members but was able to be shored up before coming down altogether. But collapses are not unheard of in the electric utility and refinery/chemical industries. It is just more newsworthy for some reason when it happens at an East Coast nuclear plant. Duane Arnold has not, to my knowledge, experienced a tritium problem but without naming names there have been tritium leaks at other nuclear plants that the locals have long since put behind them. For some reason East and West Coasters seem to fixate on nuclear power and its perceived risks way more than people in the South and Midwest.

Richard Kulisz said...

Regarding the Violation of the MOU, all I can say is WOW. The chutzpah is downright amazing.