Commentary

Tom Evslin: Is Vermont better off without Yankee?

Editor’s note: Tom Evslin is an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official.

VTDigger says: “… [soon to be ex-Gov.] Shumlin contends the state is better off without Vermont Yankee’s 605 megawatts of power production due to a new emphasis on renewables and efficiency.”

No less an authority than climatologist James Hansen, who is certainly one of the scientists most alarmed by the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, says in an article written with three colleagues:

“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions – not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power. Some have argued that it is feasible to meet all of our energy needs with renewables. The 100% renewable scenarios downplay or ignore the intermittency issue by making unrealistic technical assumptions, and can contain high levels of biomass and hydroelectric power at the expense of true sustainability …

“… a build rate of 61 new reactors per year could entirely replace current fossil fuel electricity generation by 2050. Accounting for increased global electricity demand driven by population growth and development in poorer countries, which would add another 54 reactors per year, this makes a total requirement of 115 reactors per year to 2050 to entirely decarbonise the global electricity system in this illustrative scenario. We know that this is technically achievable because France and Sweden were able to ramp up nuclear power to high levels in just 15-20 years.”

Being done in China, of course. In the U.S. this means getting Yucca Mountain open. It was first designated as a repository for nuclear waste in 1987. We’ve paid for it many times over in charges on nuclear plants, but the waste from our current plants is still in their onsite storage pools, largely because Sen. Reid managed to block opening Yucca. He’s gone; time to open Yucca for current and future waste and start building new nukes.

I am NOT advocating massive subsidies for nukes or a prohibition of competing power sources. I am advocating lowering the incredible high cost of building a nuclear plant through regulatory reform and making sure that it is recognized as being carbon-free and smoke-free and Sulphur-free and nitrous-oxide-free etc., etc.

I am advocating lowering the incredible high cost of building a nuclear plant through regulatory reform and making sure that it is recognized as being carbon-free and smoke-free and Sulphur-free and nitrous-oxide-free etc., etc.

• Wherever there are standards for the amount of “renewable” energy utilities must buy, make sure these are changed to be “emission free” as Hansen suggests. If there are no such standards, nukes will have to compete on price (which I think they’ll be able to do).

• A couple of standard reference designs should be pre-approved. This means that the approval process for each proposed new plant does NOT have to include and should not include the design of the plant itself. Only site-specific issues need to be considered. Permits for new designs should be possible, of course.

• Limit the permitting period to two years. The answer may well be “no” for any specific plant. That frees resources to look to site elsewhere.

• Once a permit is granted, do NOT allow “protests” to disrupt construction. Period. Of course legal appeals are possible, but, once the initial permit has been granted, appellants who want a stay of construction should have to post a bond equal to the cost of the delay which will be forfeited if the appeal is lost.

By the way, steps three and four need to be taken for all infrastructure projects. Interestingly, developers of wind projects in Vermont are finding their projects delayed by harassment as well even after permits are granted.

Just think, once we have enough nuclear plants, we won’t have to footnote that Teslas run on 50 percent coal-derived energy.

The net effect of building more nuclear plants, especially if done without subsidies, should be cheaper and not more expensive power. So, if it turns out that fears of climate change were overdone, we will still have improved the energy supply, especially in developing countries.

But, if you believe in the need for subsidies and mandates, you really should heed Hansen’s advice and insist that they be available to re-establish nuclear power.

Hard to see why this isn’t something we all agree on – unless, of course, we have a vested interest in some other source of energy. Although Yankee needed an update, it’s a shame we can’t continue to enjoy its green low-cost electricity anymore.


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  • Howard Shaffer

    In Vermont there were three strikes against the plant. 1. The successful campaign to convince susceptible people that “any amount of radiation is dangerous.” 2. The false idea that nuclear power blocks alternatives and efficiency. 3. The plant’s terrible communications – they used the NRC definition of underground pipes, which only includes metal pipes in contact with the soil. Pipes under your feet when standing in the yard are underground as far as the public is concerned, and that’s what leaked.

  • Gerry Silverstein

    I believe harnessing the most powerful energy source in the known universe—the nucleus of atoms—is essential in the challenge of limiting human contributions to carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere. That said, I am strongly opposed to “regulatory reform” that is done to lower costs. The Fukushima nuclear tragedy was preventable had back-up electrical generators been placed in hardened secure locations. When you place multiple nuclear reactors in a tsunami zone, you need to be aggressive in regulatory-related “what-ifs”. Regulation adds to cost, but in the long run it is essential, even if “what-ifs” never come to pass.

    Those who advocate for nuclear power need to better educate the public about low levels of radiation and human health, and the public needs to be more receptive to learning about radiation…..both low level radiation associated with “leaks” at nuclear power plants, and higher level radiation used in medicine (such as CT scans & cancer treatments).

  • Jito Coleman

    The biggest “IF” in this thinking and a linchpin to the argument is that nuclear generated electricity is cost competitive. So far, after 60 years of trying this industry is the most subsidized of all forms of energy.

    • Daniel Daigler

      On what facts/analysis do you base this statement?

      • Moshe Braner

        No-where on the planet has a nuclear power plant been built without massive public subsidies. Also it is not “emissions free”, since the building thereof (and the disposal of the radioactive wastes, by means as yet unknown) emits huge amounts of greenhouse gasses.

        • Glenn Thompson

          “Also it is not “emissions free”, since the building thereof”

          Is there any energy source that is “emissions free” if you factor in the extraction of raw materials, the process of producing pieces parts for that particular energy source, the construction including excavation to place a energy source….etc, etc, etc?

          • John Greenberg

            Glenn Thompson:
            “Is there any energy source that is “emissions free”…?

            No, there isn’t.

            So the claim should be retired. It is false in every case (including even energy efficiency).

            The only “emissions free” energy is energy we don’t use at all: conservation.

  • Bob Zeliff

    The simple fact is nuclear energy is expensive, evan with massive Government subsidies.

    Vermont’s Entergy plant closed because it was not competitive…evan in New England where natural gas is expensive. Also there is NO long term efficient wast storage plan implemented so we must live with distributed on site long term storage for this extremely hazardous waste. ( how safe is that with today’s terrorists…)let alone expensive.

    Billions have been invested in “clean” nuclear by the Energy Department and the Military over the last 50+ years with out success! Likely more $$$$ than has been invested in renewable energy sources.

    When! If !!! there is a new nuclear technology that can be competitive and clean, it would be then worth looking at it again.

  • J Scott Cameron

    Tom Evslin makes some great points but the public has been so conditioned to the danger or nuclear power that they will not get a fair hearing, at least in my lifetime.

  • John Greenberg

    The core error here is financial.

    Mr. Evslin says he is “NOT advocating massive subsidies for nukes,” but fails to recognize that no nuclear plant has ever been built without one. Those being built now are vastly over budget DESPITE their subsidies. Indeed, Toshiba and Areva have now lost billions of dollars on new nuclear construction here and abroad.

    Mr. Evslin says: “…nukes will have to compete on price (which I think they’ll be able to do).”

    DOE thinks otherwise: The levelized cost of electricity for advanced nuclear plants coming online in 2022 is estimated to be $99.7/MWH compared to $55.5 for onshore wind and $74.2 for solar PV and $42.3 for geothermal. These values do NOT include tax credits. http://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf

    Without subsidies, private markets will not finance new US nukes, at least not in the US. Yet, Hansen’s 61 per year would require around $610 billion EACH YEAR.

    Evslin and Hansen are dreaming. Wakey, wakey

    • John Greenberg
      Do the costs for onshore wind and solar PV that you cite include the grid scale batteries or other energy storage and the grid modifications that will be needed for these intermittent energy sources ? Also, geothermal looks affordable but aren’t viable sites limited ?

      • John Greenberg

        Ken Egnaczak:

        Yes: Transmission investments ARE included in the cost estimates.

        And yes, geothermal isn’t viable everywhere. My understanding is that most of the US geothermal resources are situated in the West. My further understanding is that there are few or no such resources in our area.

        • Chris Kayes

          Sorry, but the report which John referenced is extremely biased and confuses many possible future scenarios as real facts. Not to be taken very seriously.
          The DOE are the dreamers. This is all about to change, get ready for it.

          • John Greenberg

            Chris Kayes suggests that a report from DOE is “extremely biased and confuses many possible future scenarios as real facts.” He doesn’t specify ANY bias, ANY confusion, or ANY “real facts” that the report overlooked.

            He also provides nothing which supports his own credibility as an expert in the field, so we’re left to believe an un-credentialed commenter in a relatively obscure publication (pace VT Digger) rather than an agency of the federal government which hires credentialed scientists, economists, etc.

  • Matt Fisken

    At some point, we need to realize that low-cost electricity is what has gotten us into our messy addiction with overusing energy. Planning for the future means using less electricity—not more—and preparing for the likely scenario that electricity will not be available 24/7/365. Instead of building 2,000 new nuclear reactors to ward off greenhouse gas emission-induced climate change, we should be making our homes better able to withstand more extreme weather and operate without constant grid-supplied power.

    • John Greenberg

      Matt Fisken:

      “Planning for the future means using less electricity ….” That’s true in the developed world, but it’s a lot less convincing message to billions in Asia and Africa who have never had access to electricity. Indeed, in many cases, it would impose continued dire poverty on significant parts of the “developing” world.

      One of the problems with this op-ed is that it conflates Hansen’s attempt to address GLOBAL needs with what would be required here in the US, where cheap energy has long been available.

      If we confine this discussion to the US, I agree with you entirely: “low-cost electricity is what has gotten us into our messy addiction with overusing energy.” The same is true of ALL energy.

      For too long, we’ve failed to internalize the costs of “cheap energy.” Global warming is only one of them.

      We need to transition to living well with far less energy. There are many ways to achieve that goal.

  • John Greenberg

    This piece is full of errors and inaccuracies.

    Yucca Mountain was first designated in 1982, after a highly political process which ended DOE’s more scientific attempts to find the best repository sites in the US. Why isn’t Mr. Evslin touting Vermont granite, which was included on the DOE short list?

    Mr. Evslin calls for regulatory reform, ignoring the fact that the NRC has vastly streamlined its process precisely to facilitate new nuclear construction. If there’s to be more regulatory reform, Evslin should provide specific examples. NRC has already approved standard reference designs both for plants and for dry casks. The plants currently being built have not been impeded by opponents, but rather by their own errors.

    Nuclear plants are not free of any of the pollutants he mentions: all are part of the nuclear fuel cycle, just as they are part of the renewable fuel cycle.

    Despite the headline, none of this relates to VY, which couldn’t compete with cheap natural gas.

    • The most important regulatory reforms (which I did suggest) are limiting the time period for approval (or disapproval) to two years; not allowing vandals to stop approved construction; and requiring posting of a bond for the cost of delay by anyone who requests a stopwork order after regulatory approval.

      These reforms should not just be for nuclear projects, IMO. They should also be for wind, solar, gas pipelines, and even highways. All of these projects incur enormous cost escalation because almost anyone, at no risk to them themselves, can cause a delay of almost any duration.

      • John Greenberg

        Tom Evslin:

        Nuclear power is and has always been largely federally regulated.

        Vermont Yankee, for example, was not subjected to ANY state regulation until the first sale was proposed (except, perhaps?, water discharge permits). Economic regulation was at the FERC, not the VT PSB. (Many other nukes ARE regulated financially by state boards).

        Opponents have intervened at various regulatory proceedings, but I am unaware of ANY construction delays caused by any citizen intervention.

        In the 1970s when most plants were built, NRC had a 2-step process, which has been consolidated into a 1-step process making citizen intervention far more difficult.

        Even under the old process, I am unaware of any plant whose construction was actually delayed by intervention. Please cite examples. If there are none, as I suspect, your proposals are addressing a problem which does not exist and has never existed. Accordingly, changing the regulation will not save or revitalize nuclear power.

        • Peter Bradford

          Shoreham and Seabrook (thirty years ago) are the only nuclear projects that were in a position to operate while contested hearings continued. When I testified to this effect at a Senate committee hearing before the Shoreham and Seabrook delays had occurred, the committee asked the General Accounting Office to look into the issue because the nuclear industry claims were for much larger delay effects. The resulting GAO report confirmed my statement without reservation.
          Under the NRCs post-2000 one step licensing process (which includes the generic design approvals advocated by Mr. Evslin) applications for 31 reactors were pending at the NRC in 2009. Four of these are being built but are well behind schedule and billions over budget for reasons having nothing to do with environmental intervenors, whose warnings of the likely cost overruns and delays were ignored. The remaining 27 2009 applications are either cancelled or indefinitely delayed. None have begun construction since 2010.

    • Glenn Thompson

      “Despite the headline, none of this relates to VY, which couldn’t compete with cheap natural gas.”

      That statement is partial correct. You failed to mention, Entergy attempted to operate in a state that was hostile to Nuclear Power including the government in Montpelier.

      I have stated numerous times, I’m not a big fan of generating electricity by NG. NG is widely used by industry, commercial, and residential applications. Sure, NG is cheap by today’s standards, but what happens when the demand of NG catches up to supply? How is that going to impact NG prices and then what do we use to generate electricity at reasonable rates?

      • John Greenberg

        Glenn Thompson:

        When Entergy announced its decision to close VY, it did not mention State hostility. It issued an almost identical statement when it announced the Pilgrim’s closing. Other decisions have been made elsewhere: if there is any evidence that any of them have cited Vermont’s (or any state’s) hostility to nuclear power, please present it.

        I am not defending the use of natural gas to generate power. It’s a fact of today’s marketplace, not a decision I made.

        I have consistently supported energy conservation and efficiency to reduce demand and the development of renewable resources to displace supply so that fossil fuels will be needed less in the future than they are now.

        Finally, it’s not clear that generating power at “reasonable rates” is such a great idea, once economic externalities are considered. See Matt Fisken’s and my comments above.

        • Glenn Thompson

          They didn’t need to. Anyone who followed this topic realized Entergy was
          operating in a state that was *hostile* to Nuclear power and specifically Entergy. If you walked into a room filled with people who didn’t want you around, wouldn’t you leave?

          I’ll let you do the research, then you can explain to me why the Cuomo administration (NY state) went to bat to prevent the closing of two nuclear power plants in upper NY state? Did anyone in Montpelier go to bat to save VY from closing?

          You support (and so do I) energy conservation and efficiency, but aren’t you on record supporting filling the place with electric vehicles and electric heat pumps? Where does the additional electricity come from to satisfy that demand?

          To power the future by eliminating fossil fuel power sources and at the same time reduce green house emissions without Nuclear power would not achievable for decades.

          • John Greenberg

            Glenn Thompson:

            NY is letting Fitzpatrick (also Entergy owned) close early. Does that mean that NY hostile to Entergy? Meanwhile, it is spending $7.6 billion to keep 2 plants open. Is that what you advocate for VT? What about rates? IF our utilities had accepted VY’s final offer, rates would have risen even without subsidies.

            “Did anyone in Montpelier go to bat to save VY from closing?” VY had supporters, including legislators like Phil Scott and lobbying groups like the Grocers Association and the Chamber of Commerce. But some of these groups chose to drop their support for VY or sit out the final battle, while some formerly supportive senators –Illuzzi, Carris, Brock & others — voted to let the plant close.

            “To power the future … without Nuclear power would not achievable for decades,” just as it will WITH nukes, which take 10 years to site and build, assuming they can stay on schedule. VT’s 90% goal is more than 3 decades off, as are others around the world.

          • John Greenberg

            Glenn Thompson:

            “…aren’t you on record supporting filling the place with electric vehicles and electric heat pumps?” Actually, no. I’ve responded to misleading and inaccurate arguments against EVs (and heat pumps?) in comments, but I’ve never advocated for either.

            I do recognize that if we’re going to transition from our current energy system to a sustainable one, some of the tasks currently using liquid fuels may need to shift over to electricity instead. That could well mean an increase in electric demand. On the other hand, all of the efficiency goals I’ve seen are WAY too low, in my estimation. All I can say at this point is that there will be forces driving demand for electricity up and others driving it down.

            Frankly, it is way too early to try to come up with accurate numbers which will depend heavily on technological changes. I don’t want to add to the bogus numbers too often proffered here.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Nuclear power is the most dangerous and the most expensive power on earth.

    We need focus on conservation. Smaller houses, fewer night time athletic events, less unnecessary travel, local neighborhood schools, public transportation.

    • Rosemarie,
      Actually coal is by far the deadliest and most dangerous energy source due to mining hazards and air pollution. Nuclear power, wind, and solar are extremely safe energy sources, relative to coal, oil and gas. People are afraid of nuclear power; but that does not make it dangerous.

      • John Greenberg

        Steve Comeau:

        “People are afraid of nuclear power; but that does not make it dangerous.” Tell that to the folks around Chernobyl and Fukushima.

        • As I recall Chernobly failed because Rusia/Soviet Union “cheaped out” in the construction and operation. US and European reactors I believe are constructed and operated differently. I also believe that there were no deaths attributed to radiation from the Fukushima reactor failure. Mother Nature killed more people than Fukushima’s reactor failure.

          • John Greenberg

            Ken Egnaczak:

            Chernobyl was indeed a different design from US reactors.

            However, Fukushima was practically identical to VY: same design, same builders, etc.

            “I also believe that there were no deaths attributed to radiation from the Fukushima reactor failure.” Believe whatever you wish, but there is now at least one worker cancer attributed to radiation http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/20/fukushima-nuclear-disaster-first-worker-diagnosed-cancer

            The real answer, however, is that it’s way too early to know. There are already some excess cancers in the area; cancers develop over many years and decades.

            One shouldn’t walk by a roomful of smokers and declare that smoking is safe because they’re all still alive: no one expects tobacco smoke to kill people instantly. It’s a safe bet, however, that if you followed those in the room over a period of decades, you’d find plenty of premature deaths.

            Radiation is no different.

  • It’s really hard to compare levelized costs of electricity for different sources, because of the variety of hidden subsidies. A first approximation is to divide the total construction cost of the plant by the number of kilowatt-hours generated in its lifetime. Do this for wind, nuclear, solar and then wonder about the claims you read of. [Second approximation: add financing costs and fuel costs for nat gas, nuclear, coal]

    Yes, Tom is right, CO2-emission-free power can be generated by nuclear power, cheaper than coal, with no subsidies. I’ve written a book on this. I’m now walking the talk with ThorCon International, where we plan to manufacture 40-100 liquid fuel fission power plants per year. We’re starting in SE Asia because that’s where coal plants are now being built at over 1 per week. See thorconpower.com for more information.

    • John Greenberg

      Robert Hargraves:

      “It’s really hard to compare levelized costs of electricity for different sources, because of the variety of hidden subsidies.”

      As noted above, the EAI estimates INCLUDE subsidies. There are, however, attempts to isolate subsidies, and the source rankings don’t change much. See, e.g., https://www.lazard.com/media/2390/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-analysis-90.pdf, p.3.

      “A first approximation is to divide the total construction cost of the plant by the number of kilowatt-hours generated in its lifetime.” This would equate the levelized cost of building a fossil fuel or nuclear plant with considerable operating costs excluded to that of operating wind or solar installations with almost all costs included up-front. Put differently, it would compare IDLE fossil fuel or nuclear plants to wind and solar plants over their lifetimes. Not very useful.

      Your second approximation is better; both are much less sophisticated than those at the links.

  • James Hopf

    Many comments here talk about cost, and how it’s the real reason for nuclear’s lack of success. They almost seem to suggest that the author missed that point. In fact, finding ways to reduce cost was one of the main points of his article.

    Several decades ago, nuclear power cost less than half of what it does today (even in inflation adjusted dollars). It is clear that escalating regulatory and QA requirements are almost entirely responsible for this. One would expect costs to drop, with advancing technology and operational lessons learned.

    The author talks about the permitting process, but I don’t think he goes far enough, The problems are far deeper than that. Nuclear requirements, and associated costs, are vastly out of proportion with the actual hazard. Never has so much money been spent for so little benefit.

  • James Hopf

    The author also talked about having fair policies that treat all non-polluting power sources equally. So far, the only policies we have are heavy subsidies and outright mandates for renewable energy only, creating an unfair playing field. Yes, gas is cheaper than nuclear now, but that’s due, in part, to it’s privilege of releasing mass quantities of pollution and CO2 into the environment for free. Nuclear gets zero financial advantage over gas at this point, which is indefensible.

    Those who think that nuclear is not economically competitive should have no problem agreeing to giving it equal and fair credit for its non-emitting nature. After all, it will fail anyway, right? All we’re asking is that you put your assertions to a market test.

    BTW, all the suggestions that nuclear is heavily subsidized (w/o any examples ever given) are complete nonsense. It is one of the least subsidized sources (actually very negatively subsidized, if you count spectacular over-regulation).

    • John Greenberg

      James Hopf’s claim that only renewables are subsidized is blatantly false. He argues that “So far, the only policies we have are heavy subsidies and outright mandates for renewable energy only…,” but then contradicts himself by complaining about a subsidy for gas: namely, its “privilege of releasing mass quantities of pollution and CO2 into the environment for free.” That is far from the only subsidy for fossil fuels.

      Historically, oil, gas and coal have received far greater subsidies than other sources, including both nuclear AND renewables. For an historical perspective, see http://www.dblinvestors.com/documents/What-Would-Jefferson-Do-Final-Version.pdf.

      Even NEI, the nuclear lobby, agrees that nuclear has received about the same amount of subsidies as renewables: http://www.nei.org/Issues-Policy/Policy-Resources/Testimony/Testimony-for-the-Record-for-the-Energy-Tax-Reform?feed=Testimony

      All energy in America has been subsidized to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.

    • John Greenberg

      James Hopf:

      1) I would happily eliminate subsidies for all well-established energy industries, including fossil fuels, nuclear, photovoltaic solar, and onshore wind, retaining them only for nascent industries which might create a better future: tidal power, battery research, algae fuels, etc.

      In the real world, there is little likelihood of Congress eliminating any of the existing subsidies; it may well add more. So, subsidized figures are the ones that state policymakers, utility officials, regulators and others will need to consider in planning our energy future.

      2) You claim that the nuclear industry is over-regulated, but provide no examples. Tom Evslin made similar claims, but his examples turned out to be specious as Peter Bradford and I pointed out above. So specifically which regulations should we do without?

      3) If over-regulation were the sole cause of high nuclear costs, then surely there must be other countries with less regulation and lower costs. Examples?