Before I started VDB, I believed in a vague, unhurried way that nuclear power was fundamentally at odds with core Vermont values. That is to say, I was against it, but had other things to think about: the shredding of the Constitution, the institutionalization of torture, electronic ballot tampering.
But that’s the inconvenient truth about this business: you get religion on other issues from your readers, and the people you meet through the site.
On the Vermont Yankee issue, I got religion in the North and I got religion in the South: Arnie Gundersen, my neighbor in Burlington’s New North End, and Steve West and Gorty Baldwin, WKVT radio hosts in Brattleboro, all began schooling me in the issues and the various dangers.
But today, let’s take Arnie’s story.
Arnie was an executive in the nuclear industry, back in the late ’80’s, but in 1990 he came forward as a whistleblower and was fired the same year. Over the next several years, his case got a great deal of attention, and he testified before Congress during hearings on ways to protect whistleblowers.
Fast-forward to 2007. Arnie is now a prominent nuclear safety expert witness. And he’s also a longtime reader of this site.
And so this past February, on the 24th, Arnie sent me an email that I hung on to because it had the unsettling feel of a bad prophecy destined to come true. He was very worried about the power boost at Yankee, and what it might mean immediately down the road.
The first Vermont Yankee outage since the uprate will start soon. Rather than be a Monday morning (or is that mourning) quarterback, I thought I would go on record with someone outside of the nuclear crowd whom I respect to identify my concerns. I honestly hope I am wrong, because the forces we are dealing with at VY are terrifying. Anyway, I think we need to watch out for three potential problem areas during the outage:
1. Steam Dryer issues: All of VY’s sister units have had serious Steam Dryer problems after uprate, and VY’s uprate is larger than any of theirs. Not only was the Steam Dryer measured to be vibrating excessively after the “uprate”, but VY also measured excessively high moisture content in the steam, indicating problems like cracking. It would not surprise me if VY already ordered a new Dryer and it is sitting at the manufacturer’s facility waiting for the rate payer protection clauses here in Vermont to expire before its purchase is even announced.
Of course, it would be an admission of a problem if they announce too early, opening them up to warranty claims under the deal Entergy cut with the State of VT.
Arnie goes on to list two other major areas of concern in that February email, but his number one worry was Steam Dryer cracking. Cracking directly due to the increase in output.
Which rang a bell when I read last week’s Rutland Herald. The piece was slugged, “State Concerned about Cracks at Vermont Yankee.”
“The Department of Public Service wants more information about new cracks in a key component at Vermont Yankee that it suspects developed since the nuclear reactor boosted power production last year.
“Sarah Hofmann, director of public advocacy for the Department of Public Service, said Tuesday the state is concerned about five cracks on components of the steam dryer and wants additional information about them from plant-owner Entergy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
The fact that Arnie’s very specific projections so closely mirror eventual reality at the plant says several things to me:
1) Arnie Gundersen knows from whence he speaks. He is not some crank with an irrational fear of nuclear energy. Rather, he is a highly skilled watchdog, whose views the State should begin actively soliciting rather than fighting or disparaging.
2) Rather than discussing the merits of a windfall profits tax on Yankee, we should be openly debating its closure. That’s the best and most effective way to frame the issue in the coming cycle: where do the candidates stand not on the rate boost, or taxation, or waste disposal, but on closure itself.
If candidates plead scarce energy resources, they should be pushed to develop specific alternative plans and sources that will make closure feasible in the short term, not the long.
Don’t get me wrong: reading Arnie’s email is not always a chilling experience. Sometimes he’s more humorous than unsettling.
For example, when he writes that “Governor Douglas and Commissioner O’Brien don’t know the difference between a neutron and a crouton.”
Now that’s funny.
At least until you start to think about it.