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April 30, 2008

(VT) Yankee Doodle Doldrums

Earlier this month, Christian Parenti, a contributing editor at The Nation, gave a lecture at the University of Vermont. I think the talk was ostensibly about climate change, but who knows? Parenti spent most of the time talking about other stuff, and I couldn't follow his thesis.

In a May 12 Nation cover story  (that magazine is a little preemptive), Parenti offers a much clearer argument — this time, on the nuclear power industry. In short, he says that, despite the best efforts of the Bush administration, nuclear's heyday is up. To illustrate his point, Parenti points out that Warren Buffet's MidAmerican Nuclear Energy Company recently decided not to built a new nuclear plant in Idaho because it wouldn't be profitable, even with federal subsidies.

When I spoke with California-based "peak oil" expert Richard Heinberg on April 18, he had this to say in response to my question about nuclear energy:

SEVEN DAYS: The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is a hot-button topic. Some oppose nuclear power outright, while others claim it’s cleaner than coal.
RICHARD HEINBERG: Well, nuclear power is inherently limited by the supply of uranium, which is another non-renewable resource. The best study we have on future uranium supply . . . concludes that global uranium supplies will peak, even in the best case scenario, before 2050. So if we continue operating our current fleet of 103 nuclear power stations in this country, we’ll be able to keep them running through most of this century with gradually increasing costs . . . If that’s the case, why not just invest directly in wind and solar now and bypass nuclear?

Interestingly, the most-discussed nuclear plant in Parenti's Nation piece is Vermont Yankee. He writes that Yankee's recent 20-percent power uprate is one of the largest nationwide in the last decade-- not a good sign, notes Parenti, in light of last summer's cooling-tower collapse at the facility.

"One of these days a plant will blow," said Diana Sidebotham, a Putney activist, in Parenti's cover story.

Meanwhile, the heat is on in Montpelier, where a new bill related to Vermont Yankee is headed straight for Governor Jim Douglas' desk. The bill, S.373, would require the plant's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Nuclear to put money away for proper decommissioning of the Vernon plant. It will cost over $800 million to decommission the plant, but the current decommissioning fund is only valued at about half that figure, or $400 million.

Vermont Public Radio reports that Douglas — who vetoed a comprehensive energy bill, H.520, last summer over concerns that the legislation unfairly taxed Yankee — "doesn't like" S.373. Will he veto it?

As for Yankee higher-ups: The Times Argus says they want to use the decommissioning fund for nuclear-waste storage, as opposed to, well, decommissioning.

For more background on the Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund, see Ken Picard's December 12 Seven Days cover story , "Fission Accomplished."

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