Shaffer: Energy plan relies too much on fossil fuels

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Howard Shaffer, a licensed professional engineer in nuclear engineering who was a startup engineer at Vermont Yankee.

For serious open-minded environmentalists, there’s a lot to dislike about Vermont’s new Comprehensive Energy Plan.

The plan admits somewhat shamefacedly that, despite good intentions, Vermont won’t have enough renewable power anytime soon, so difficult decisions must be made. So, basically, the plan is saying: out with Vermont Yankee, in with burning more natural gas and coal.

Only to the most zealous anti-nuclear ideologue does this decision make environmental sense. The historical record of fossil-fuel power generation is replete with emissions-related fatalities. In a press release last July, the U.S. EPA states that cross-border air pollution costs 32,000 early deaths, 1.5 million non-fatal heart attacks, 1.8 million lost work days and $280 billion in medical costs every year. That’s one reason Congress chose nuclear power to replace coal.

By contrast Vermont Yankee, and indeed the entire U.S. nuclear power generating industry, has zero emissions and has never had a radiation-related fatality.

Some opponents of Vermont Yankee mention Fukushima and expect everyone to hate Vermont Yankee. Fact check: according to the Japan Times newspaper, no one has died from radiation as a result of the disaster. And a disaster it was, on a scale virtually unreproducible at Vermont Yankee, both inside and outside the plant. In the real world in which we live, the record shows there is no safer large producer of power than nuclear. I respect people’s right to their own emotions and fears, but I regret when they hold sway in public discourse. Almost everyone drives, even though one in 77 people die from car accidents. Opponents of any technology compare it to perfection. In the real world, alternatives are compared to each other.

Like the experts at the Vermont Department of Health and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I regard tritium as essentially harmless, indeed less so than eating a banana.
This is a finding based on comprehensive study of nuclear science.

The Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for more solar power but says little or nothing about how to dispose of panels that have outlived their 20 to 30-year lifespan. Talk about a waste storage problem! As currently constructed, these panels contain multiple hazardous, non-disposable chemical compounds. At least Vermont Yankee has an onsite storage plan, and not one but two doable, industry-wide potential solutions (Yucca Mountain storage and fuel reprocessing, which was operational but abandoned by presidential order in the late 1970s). Does anyone know or care where these tens of thousands of solar panels will be tossed by mid-century? Certainly not investors in the solar industry, but what about our media, environmental groups and elected officials?

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Here’s another major drawback with the state plan: Very few instate renewable power generators actually exist. Permits must be acquired, highly visible land bought and cleared, and roads built up the mountainsides for wind turbines. It is one thing to develop renewable power in a measured, orderly way that is at peace with permitting and cultural norms. It is another to toss the Vermont way of life under the solar and wind bus because renewables are, in the words of the governor, “a moral imperative.” Yet such an imperative is significantly diminished by the very act of ignoring wise standards and values.

Vermont Yankee, however, exists. It operates quite reliably. Experience with large steam electric plants going back to the 19th century proves that they operate for much longer than 40 years. No new roads or power lines are needed, no mountain ridge lines obliterated. As the major financial source of the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund, Vermont Yankee has been a godsend to renewable power. It also gives energy planners something they need even more than money: time. Instead Vermont’s rush to alternatives, with questions still turning up, may make our environment an unintended casualty.


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