Vermont Yankee operating at reduced power as engineers investigate condenser problem

Vermont Yankee on the banks of the Connecticut River

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is operating at reduced capacity due to a problem with a key component of the reactor system.

A Yankee official says engineers at the plant are investigating an issue with the condenser.

The condenser is original to the 40-year-old plant and functions something like a radiator — it operates under vacuum pressure and condenses steam from the plant into water and then returns it to the reactor. The condenser is made up of two sections, each the size of a three-story house. Each section has thousands of metal tubes inside it that carry river water, over time the tubing has worn thin.

Last November, during a planned refueling outage, plant workers applied a protective coating — an epoxy or plastic — to the tubing in the condenser in an effort to reduce wear and tear on the metal and extend the life of the condenser.

At the beginning of February, nuclear engineers at the plant discovered that the the thermal heat exchange efficiency of the condenser was greatly reduced. Last week, the plant had to lower its power production by 50 percent because back pressure was building up in the condenser.

Larry Smith, communications director for Vermont Yankee, said the cause of the “reduced performance” of the condenser isn’t clear at this point.

For the time being, the plant cannot operate at full power until the problem is resolved, he said.

“We are evaluating all the associated systems to determine the cause,” Smith said. “It could be any number of things that’s causing the issue.”

Smith said the condenser has been upgraded over time and the tubes were “resleeved” several years ago.

Neil Sheehan, regional spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the plastic coating Entergy used on the condenser tubes has caused the system to run less efficiently. Until the plant can fix the problem, it will have to run at reduced power, he said.

Last week the back pressure level went up to 4.5 pounds per square inch. The maximum level for the plant is 5 psi, according to Sarah Hofmann, deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service. At that point, the plant has to power down, Hofmann said. At 7 psi, the plant trips on its own and goes into SCRAM mode.

Vermont Yankee officials have told the state that the epoxy could be the cause of the thermal efficiency problem. Hofmann said she hopes the plant is investigating this theory next week. If the epoxy is the source of the issue, the plant will have to run at 50 percent power levels while workers strip epoxy off of the tubing in each of the sections of the condenser.

“It’s one of the lead theories,” Hofmann said. “We’re waiting while they’re investigating going further.”

Arnie Gundersen, a Burlington-based nuclear engineer and frequent national media commentator on the nuclear industry, said the heat transfer problem will worsen in summer when the water temperature of the Connecticut River rises from springtime temperatures of 50 degrees to 70 degrees.

The warmer water could lead to reduced output at the plant. Every time the plant drops 10 megawatts, it costs Entergy Corp., the plant’s owner, $10 million. The plant’s output could be cut in half and lead to a loss of 40 megawatts to 50 megawatts of power per day in the summer, Gundersen said.

Hofmann said the Department of Public Service is concerned about the broader issues with regard to Entergy’s management of the plant. “It brings up how well the plant is running and also the human error factors,” she said.

Bob Stannard, a lobbyist for Vermont Citizens Action Network, an anti-nuclear group, said the condenser problems call into question the reliability of the plant.

“We’ve known for years the condenser needed to be replaced,” Stannard said. “We’ve known Entergy has a history of deferring maintenance. After 40 years they’re still doing trial and error on the repairs to this plant. You’d think we’d be beyond trial and error phase for maintaining a nuclear power plant.”

Since Louisiana-based Entergy Corporation purchased Vermont Yankee from state utility companies CVPS and Green Mountain Power in 2002, the plant has had a string of physical plant problems including a water tower collapse and a transformer fire. In January 2010, the company revealed that underground pipes at the plant were leaking tritium into soil on the compound, which is located on the banks of the Connecticut River.

The plant’s license to operate in Vermont expires on March 21. Pro- and anti-nuclear activists plan protests in the run up to the plant’s 40-year anniversary.

In 2009, the Vermont Senate voted to deny permission for Entergy to obtain a certificate of public good from the Public Service Board for relicensure of the plant, which employs 650 people in the Vernon area where the plant is located. The plant has since become the center of litigation. Entergy sued the state over several statutes, including one that gives Vermont jurisdiction over the continued operation of the plant past the 40-year deadline and a say in the long-term storage of nuclear waste on site.

Entergy won the first round of the suit in U.S. District Court; the Vermont Attorney General has appealed. Scholars and observers say the case could go the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anne Galloway

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29 Comments on "Vermont Yankee operating at reduced power as engineers investigate condenser problem"

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Dennis Pearson
3 years 10 months ago

“The warmer water could lead to reduced output at the plant. Every time the plant drops 10 megawatts, it costs Entergy Corp., the plant’s owner, $10 million. The plant’s output could be cut in half and lead to a loss of 40 megawatts to 50 megawatts of power, Gundersen said.”

Assuming $45/MWe-hr, the plant if operating at 100% power (625 MWe) would make $675,000/day. Dropping 10 MWe would cost the plant $10 million in about 2.5 years of operation.

I think something was lost in translation.

Howard Shaffer
3 years 10 months ago

Perhaps the Engineering team of Fairewinds and Stannard could recommend a solution tailored to the chemistry of the river at Vernon?

Entergy has already said they will replace the condenser when they know they are going to operate for 20 more years. The resleeving and epoxy are acknowledged to be temporary.

3 years 10 months ago

Arnie Gunderson is “Chief Engineer” of Fairwinds Associates. Perhaps he might put his entire engineering team to work on the issue? What’s that you say? He’s the ONLY engineer at Fairwinds Associates and simply calls himself “Chief Engineer” arbitrarily? As in “Captain” of a row boat with a crew of one? Well maybe Bob Stanndard and his technical crew can help. What’s that you say? Bob Stannard is a musician and a lobbyist with no technical background whatsoever? Why are these people being quoted in a technical article if they are just antinuclear activists for hire? Oh, never mind.

Bob Stannard
3 years 10 months ago

Most, if not all other nuclear power plants have replaced the condenser after 30 years. Like they did with their cooling towers, Entergy is deferring maintenance in order to enhance profits.

I’m no engineer nor have I ever claimed to be one. Frankly they should not be using our river to cool this plant. They should have to use their cooling towers and stop heating our river over 100 degrees. That’s my solution.

Bob Stannard
3 years 10 months ago

Entergy is doing what it’s noted for; deferring maintenance. They did so on the cooling towers, which resulted in the collapse. They should tell Vermonters what are the ramifications should the condenser fail.

Shaffer knows I’m no engineer no have I ever claimed to be one, but let me offer a solution; stop using (and heating up) the river and use the cooling towers full-time.

Rob Simoneau
3 years 10 months ago

I can’t believe this; Homer Simpson back at work. Epoxy! epoxy aka bondo; are you kidding me?! Why not just use duck tape and call it a day. I have posted this donation challenge on a number of these articles just a few days ago and I already won! No wonder advocates of this most dangerous nuclear power plant refuse to take up my challenge. Come on. put your asset where your mouth is!! “Entergy has already said they will replace the condenser when they know they are going to operate for 20 more years. The resleeving and epoxy are… Read more »

FRANK DAVIS
3 years 10 months ago

This is a 40 year old machine. Very few of us, probably none of the Entergy executives are driving 1972 model cars on a daily basis. Why not? They have broken down, system by system. ’72 cars are classics, collector pieces, retired, decommissioned, etc., etc.

3 years 10 months ago

Frank, if you can show me a car capable of driving at full speed, nonstop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 2 years straight before stopping for gas, without emitting a single molecule of CO2 then I’ll entertain your car analogy. Otherwise, you’re just comparing apples to the Large Hadron Collider.

Mike Kerin
3 years 10 months ago

Another band aid for this old plant, just to increase the profits. The same thing is going to happen to other “worn thin” pipes and parts.

Sense Entergy has owned the plant they have allowed the preventive maintenance to lapse, instead putting band aids on the plant. All the while they have increased power output and discharged higher temperature water into the river. All for increased profits!

Entergy has done nothing but mislead and out and out lie to the State. It is time the State deny the needed CPG on the grounds of dishonesty on the part of Entergy.

James Leas
3 years 10 months ago

While we are at it, lets calculate Entergy’s gross earnings from the Vermont Yankee reactor if it is running at full power, 625 megawatts, and if electricity price averaged over a year is 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (equivalent to $45 per megawatt-hour): 625 megawatts x 24 hours/day x 365 days/year x $45/megawatt-hr = $246,375,000 per year (For 20 years that adds up to $4.9 billion.) Enviable potential revenues. But if Entergy is losing more than half its expected revenues because it both has to run at half power and has lower conversion efficiency, then Entergy may not be making much… Read more »

Coleman Dunnar
3 years 10 months ago

Howard:
Let me see if I understand this correctly – Entergy was deferring a multi- million dollar capital investment until the uncertainty over Vermont granting a CPG was resolved. Who was responsible for creating the uncertainty? Answer – the legislature and their band of “pseudo experts “. Quoting Nancy Sinatra someone’s been “messing where they shouldn’t be messing.”

Emily Purdy
3 years 10 months ago

I know it is a charged issue whether or not Vermont Yankee stays operating or if it shuts down as scheduled next week. In my opinion creating small scale energy situations we can all work together in to maintain and support is what we should focus on. I believe Vermont Yankee should shut down as scheduled next week so we can look ahead to an energy future we can all get involved in on some level. Don’t we all live hoping we have made good decisions about the health of our families, our communities, and the Earth? Vermont Yankee is… Read more »

David klein
3 years 10 months ago

I believe that the engineers working at VTYankee are conscientious and able and have the safety of the plant as their goal. I believe that they are community minded and are an asset to Vermont and its economy. As safe as they think it to be, as remote as any possibility of meltdown or radiological release is in their calculations, nuclear power, without any way to dispose of the waste, needs to be phased out as quickly as possible.

Alex Barnham
3 years 10 months ago

Wow…I never realized the cooling problems were so great…that makes me realize something…the vents they have placed in case the reactor overheats just vent the raw steam full of strontium right into the air…unmonitored!!! Now where is the American Lung Association when you need them?

Alex Barnham
3 years 10 months ago

True journalism is going to the silent areas to find the truth.

Alex Barnham
3 years 10 months ago

I am sorry to be a nag but why are the vents not being monitored when there is a definite problem with overheating issues?

Howard Shaffer
3 years 10 months ago

The Containment “Hardened Vent” goes to the stack, which is monitored.

It was installed on Mark I plants as a last ditch measure to prevent the Containment from developing a split. The split could eventually occur if the Containment was overpressured. At Fukushima 1,2,3 pressure was high when venting was done.

The venting would be done under favorable weather conditions. Evacuation of the down wind sectors would have been ordered on the first day, as was done in Japan.

Dennis Pearson
3 years 10 months ago

Watch the video at the following link that compares the radiological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi event with Chernobyl:

http://www.world-nuclear.org/fukushima/

The WNA is an excellent site to learn more. Keep a questioning attitude, but don’t let fear of nuclear power and radiation control your life!

3 years 10 months ago

Great article. Dr. Richard Watts has just written a book on the entire Vermont Yankee story. It comes out next week and he’s doing book signings all over. Check out http://www.publicmeltdown.org for more info!

Alex Barnham
3 years 10 months ago

So in other words, Howard, the Mark I is a bomb.

3 years 10 months ago

Alex, making progressively more uninformed and inaccurate statements does not help your position.

Bob Stannard
3 years 10 months ago

Gundersen testified before the PSB in 2003 about the condenser unit becoming a problem. The “we” would be anyone with an open mind who listened to him. Of course, as is usually the case, Gundersen was right in his predictions. Don’t take my word for it. Go read the docket.

Rob Simoneau
3 years 10 months ago

vic hudson wrote: “I’m no engineer nor have I ever claimed to be one.” Correct. nor are you a lawyer. You are just a paid mouthpiece for anti-nuclear hysterics. And yet you play engineer and lawyer all the time. Dear Mr. Hudson, I am not a paid anti-nuclear hysteric. Let me introduce myself. I am trained as a materials science engineer. I worked as a guest scientist for 13 years for the Army Research Laboratory in Watertown Massachusetts. The ol Watertown arsenal. It was a “hot” base, we worked with many radioactive materials, especially depleted uranium. There was a reactor… Read more »

3 years 10 months ago

Rob, Since you’re clearly a well read guy, check out the disclaimer on page 2 of that report you just cited. The part where NYAS says they were PAID BY GREENPEACE to publish that report. It says that NYAS did not perform the study and that they do not beleive the data collected supports the conclusions drawn by the autors. They go on to say that given the nature of the report and the organization behind it, that the work appeared to be politically motivated and does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. You DID actually read the report you… Read more »

Alex Barnham
3 years 10 months ago

I do feel sorry for the people who, in the light of all the evidence, totally disregard the truth. The overwhelming evidence is available to us and the good people of Vermont (as opposed to the bad people) will do everything possible to protect our land, air, and water from being destroyed by nuclear contamination.

Rob Simoneau
3 years 10 months ago

Thank you Jack, The Chernobyl report seems to be at the center of the death toll controversy, low numbers vs. high numbers. Yes, I have read the report some of the molecular biology I struggled with. I believe, but I will check, that either the UN or WHO finally raised its number from 4,000 to 9,000. I agree with the potential conflict of interest assessment in terms of Greenpeace commissioning the report. No I am not aware of any criticism from the New York Academy of Science. It they are so critical why can I still buy the report from… Read more »

David Davison
3 years 10 months ago

Wow! Contentious expert to expert, lawyer to lawyer, corporation to individual, Federal court to state legislature arguments abound and confuse a very important issue for me. I’m not a nuclear engineer, a corporate stockholder, nor well read on what is becoming a potential crisis for my Vermont friends and neighbors. But for me, trading Louisiana corporate profits for New England health, safety, and welfare doesn’t make sense. For me, a corporation that buys an aged plant as dangerous as a nuclear one for the purpose of decommissioning it ought to be bound to decommission it. For me, the Department of… Read more »

Stephen Fitzpatrick
3 years 10 months ago

The 2010 U.S. population within 10 miles (16 km) of Vermont Yankee was 35,284, an increase of 1.4 percent in a decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data for msnbc.com. The 2010 U.S. population within 50 miles (80 km) was 1,533,472, an increase of 2.9 percent since 2000. Cities within 50 miles include Brattleboro (6 miles to city center); Keene, N.H., (16 miles to city center); Fitchburg, Mass., (38 miles to city center).[14] The democratically elected legislature,(we are spending inconceivable amounts of money and manpower promoting this form of governance around the globe.) elected by the people, hence… Read more »

Mike Kerin
3 years 10 months ago

No news about the plant running at top speed or half speed sense this story. Why can’t we keep up with what is happening?

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