The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant was on its way back to full capacity Thursday morning after operating at about a third power for much of the week.
Larry Smith, a spokesman for Vermont Yankee, said the plant was at 86 percent as of Thursday morning and on its way back to full power.
Smith said technicians went into the plant’s condenser Tuesday night to fix five tube leaks in the number four water box. The condenser turns the steam used to turn the plant’s turbines back into water. Smith said the issue with the condenser does not affect the plant’s safety.
“The condenser is on the non-nuclear side of the plant, so it’s not safety related,” he said.
Smith said there are around 22,000 tubes in the condenser. He said minor leaks in a few tubes is not uncommon for a steam condenser plant like Vermont Yankee.
He said engineers were able to “button up the condenser” to fire back up to full power.
The condenser is original to the 40-year-old plant. It 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.
Smith said Vermont Yankee is working to remove some of the epoxy coating which makes the system run less efficiently.
According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, the condenser problems could pose a big reliability problem for the plant as it moves forward.
Sarah Hofmann, deputy commissioner of the department, said other states may be reluctant to enter into contracts with Entergy Corp., the plant’s owner, given the problem.
“Vermont doesn’t have a power purchase agreement with Entergy any longer, but I would guess that other out-of-state utilities might think twice before entering a PPA with a plant that is struggling like Entergy is at this time with its condenser and thus its ability to generate consistent output,” Hofmann said in an email.
The plant had to reduce capacity last month to work on its condenser.
The New England Coalition, a group that advocates for the plant’s shutdown, said the recent issue reflects a lingering problem that may affect the plant’s continued ability to operate.
Ray Shadis, technical adviser to the New England Coalition, said having to replace the condenser “could be the straw that broke the camel’s back financially.”
He said the plant could have additional leaks that will not allow it to continue to ascend back to full power. Shadis said Entergy’s earnings call at the beginning of the year indicated that the plant was struggling to make money on the plant.
The coalition is an intervenor in the plant’s relicensing proceeding before the Vermont Public Service Board.
“One of the issues we will be raising before the Public Service Board is that the financial viability of the plant is very much in question,” Shadis said.
Earlier this year a federal judge ruled in favor of Entergy, finding Vermont laws requiring legislative approval for the plant to continue operating were unconstitutional since they were grounded in safety concerns. Under federal law, regulation of radiological safety is under the exclusive purview of the federal government.
Both the state and Entergy have appealed that decision. The plant has a valid license extension from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but it is still awaiting approval from state regulators to continue operating. The Public Service Board has asked parties to submit filings regarding the merits of the plant’s continued operation. They can address non-preempted issues like financial viability and reliability.
At the end of March, Entergy sent a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission stating that it did not intend to shutter Vermont Yankee in the next five years.
Under federal regulations, plants that are scheduled to close within five years must submit a report on the status of their decommissioning funds. Entergy told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that since it has received a new federal license, it would not submit a report this year.
“The licensee does not have plans to close Vermont Yankee within 5 years,” the letter states. “Accordingly, Entergy Nuclear Operations, Inc. is not including herewith a report pursuant to [federal regulations] for Vermont Yankee.”
Entergy is also at odds with the Department of Public Service over payments to the state Clean Energy Development Fund, which helps fund renewable energy projects. Under two agreements that expired March 21, the company agreed to make payments to the state.
The department agrees that the plant can continue operating on its old license while the Public Service Board makes a decision but that it must continue payments. This week, Entergy filed a letter with the Public Service Board stating that it would put the scheduled payments in escrow until it gets assurance from the board it can continue operating.
Meanwhile the Legislature is considering increasing the tax on the plant by $6 million to replace the payments that Entergy has been making to the state. Entergy’s filing states that it will pay the money to the state only if it receives assurance it can continue operating Vermont Yankee and the state does not levy the tax.