New England recently learned about a huge rate increase that will soon have some people paying nearly 40 percent more for electricity. Part of what’s driving the increase is the escalating cost of bringing natural gas into the region. New England has fewer and fewer alternate sources of energy, like coal and oil, to fall back on, and now sources of nuclear power also are set to retire.
Nearly a third of the electricity generated in New England is produced by nuclear power from four plants — including Vermont-Yankee Nuclear Power Station, which sits on a picturesque bend in the Connecticut River, near Brattleboro, Vt.
Martin Cohn and a few others from reactor-owner Entergy Corp. lead a tour through several checkpoints guarded by security officers. Besides metal detectors, there are also machines that test for explosive residue and check visitors' hand dimensions against stored information. A white tank-like vehicle with mounted cameras patrols the area between checkpoints.
“What you’re about to do, not many people get to do," Cohn said. "It’s really cool."
Inside, motivational posters and signs reminding workers to be safe line the walls. Entergy Vice President Chris Wamser hands everyone a small device that looks like a pager.
"This is a self-reading pocket dosimeter," Wamser said. "This will actually monitor the radiation levels as we move through the plant.”
Inside the plant’s control room, the lights are dimmed so the five technicians can clearly read the banks of computers spread throughout the room. The main console in front has pale green panels filled with rows of blinking lights. It looks very … 1970s.
Control room supervisor Steven Aprea says there’s a reason why.
“It was built in the late '60s, early '70s," he said. "But we’ve modified the plant quite a bit over the years. It is old technology, but updated, certainly.”
Through an airlock and up some flights of stairs is a raised circle on the ground.
"Right below us is the reactor vessel," Wamser said. "You’re standing on the reactor right now.”
Nearby is the material that most concerns people watching the decommissioning process closely: the spent nuclear fuel. It’s cooling in a small square pool full of water about four stories deep.
The fuel is essentially uranium — material that would be very dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. Entergy is suing the U.S. Department of Energy because the company says the federal government agreed long ago to take the spent nuclear fuel away and bury it someplace like Utah. But the government hasn’t done that, so the fuel will stay here, onsite, and will have to be guarded by round-the-clock security for years. Just how many years, no one knows for sure — and that’s part of the problem.
"Is there certainly risk associated with nuclear power? There is some, but I can’t imagine the mountain of coal that would replace all this,” Wamser said.
The idea, when Entergy bought the Pilgrim Power plant in Plymouth in 1999 and this plant in 2001, was to sell a cleaner source of power, and thereby benefit from new government incentives to reduce emissions.
But the economy tanked and those incentives didn’t materialize. Then an ocean of buried shale was discovered nearby, flooding the New England market with cheap natural gas.
Even though the price of that gas is rising now, Entergy financial officer Barrett Green says it’s still cheap enough to price out nuclear power. And he says the government isn’t going to take steps to make operating nuclear power plants profitable just to keep the region’s energy sources diversified.
"The economic benefit accruing from the lower natural gas price to the economy in general is a huge benefit that people would have to decide to sacrifice," Green said. "And the political will to do that doesn’t seem to be there."
So Entergy is decommissioning one of the nuclear plants it owns for the first time. It will cost more than $1 billion to deconstruct the facility, clean up the area, and make other contributions negotiated in a settlement with the state.
As the tour winds down, visitors pass some equipment that will be stored, long-term, in place, and, Entergy says, eventually taken away. Visitors return the dosimeters and stand in individual machines that suck away radiation.
Outside are the containers, called "dry casks," that will in many ways be Vermont Yankee’s legacy. They’re slim, roughly one-story gray-green cylinders that contain spent fuel sealed in a stainless steel cans and surrounded by concrete shielding. There are already 13 dry casks in place, and George Thomas is in charge of designing and building the structure to support more.
"In 2020, there will be 58 casks on this pad and a second pad that will be just west of here," Thomas said. "And that will be all the fuel that Vermont Yankee has used in its 42 years of operation.”
The fuel will stay, but most of the 560 employees who made this operation possible will disperse, some to move away after living in the local community for decades. But they’re not gone yet, and Entergy has adopted a motto that’s now plastered on things like portable mugs to help motivate workers through these last two months: "Step up and finish strong."