Vermont Yankee shuts down reactor for the final time
The control room simulator at Vermont Yankee headquarters in Brattleboro mirrors what is happening in the actual control room in Vernon.

Vermont Yankee shuts down reactor for the final time

Long decommissioning process lies ahead

BRATTLEBORO — A digital grid of blue lines punctuated by purple dots shone on a projector screen at the head of a training room in Entergy corporate headquarters on Old Ferry Road.

One by one, over three hours on Dec. 29, green dots appeared inside the grid, which represented the 368 fuel assemblies that power the reactor at the company's Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon.

The green dots illustrated the addition of control rods made of boron-containing metal that slow the nuclear reaction. As VY operators in the plant's control room inserted control rods, the reactor's power level slowly decreased.

After 42 years, at 12:12 p.m., VY disconnected from the New England power grid.

And then, at 1:04 p.m., the reactor shut down for the final time.

“It's actually pretty boring,” said Paul Paradis, Entergy's decommissioning director.

Shutting down a nuclear plant, even one with the legacy and controversy of VY, did not come with a flourish of pulling a breaker switch or pushing a big red button.

Powering down the reactor, said Entergy officials, followed a detailed procedure similar to shutting down for a routine reactor refueling, which took place every 18 months.

According to a press release from Site Vice President Chris Wamser, the plant operated continuously for 633 days since its last refueling in April 2013.

When fully operational, the plant fed 1,800 megawatts into the power grid.

As operators added the control rods, the power output dropped until it reached 25 megawatts - the sweet spot for disconnecting from the electrical grid.

Once the reactor's core reaction reached approximately 5 percent, with about 17 fuel assemblies still active, operators in the control room performed a “scram”: the procedure to shove the remaining control rods all at once into the reactor to terminate the nuclear reactions.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission resident inspector assigned to VY was in the control room to observe the shutdown. According to a NRC spokesperson, the inspector reported that the shutdown went smoothly, similar to the start of a typical outage for refueling and maintenance activities.

Back in Brattleboro, all the green dots in the digital line grid flashed red then reverted to green zeros.

The VY reactor had zeroed out.

A new, uncertain era

The simple line grid, green zeros, and by-the-book procedures belied deeper shifts set off by the plant's closure.

For anyone in the tri-state region born after 1972, Dec. 29 marked their first day living in the region absent an operating nuclear plant.

For those who viewed VY as an economic engine, Dec. 29 marked another grain of sand through the hourglass measuring Windham County's economic decline.

For the remaining 550 employees who count on the plant's average wage of more than $100,000, the closure represented shutting down a “perfectly viable plant.”

For those who viewed the nuclear reactor as a potentially dangerous energy generator owned by an unscrupulous corporation, Dec. 29 represented a celebratory end and the time to dig in for a decades-long decommissioning.

On Jan. 4, activists gathered in Greenfield, Mass., for a “VY Unplugged” celebration.

According to VY Government Affairs Manager Joseph Lynch, dismantling a boiling water reactor (BWR) like VY is more complex compared to plants such as Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee, and Yankee Rowe, which have already undergone decommissioning.

In BWRs, radioactive water and steam contaminates more of the facility, compared to the other Yankee plants, which were pressurized water reactors.

Lynch said that like VY, the other Yankee plants also shut down during a down energy market.

Entergy announced in 2013 that it would close VY because of economic reasons and tight pricing competition from natural gas. The company operates 10 nuclear plants on eight sites throughout the eastern part of the United States.

Paradis said that the company chose the SAFSTOR model of decommissioning, which allows the process to take place up to 60 years, because the company needed to comply with some planning assumptions.

For example, he said, the NRC rules state that a company can only assume a 2-percent rate of annual growth for the decommissioning fund. Under that conservative scenario, SAFSTOR gives the decommissioning fund enough time to grow.

He added that decommissioning could start sooner than 2072 if the decommissioning fund grows faster.

As part of an agreement negotiated after the announcement, Entergy and the state have agreed that the company will start decommissioning 120 days after the fund contains enough money. Decommissioning is estimated to cost $1.24 billion in 2014 dollars.

VY's first site vice president, Warren Murphy, and retired employee Michael Lyster, spoke to the press over the phone from the plant in Vernon. The two men sat in the plant on the day if first generated energy in 1972. Wamser had invited the retirees to visit on the plant's final day of operation.

“It was a moment of celebration to be sure,” said Murphy of VY's first day.

In his opinion, Murphy said VY “is a better plant than when it first started.”

Murphy credited the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island as one of the best tragedies to happen to the industry. The accident forced the industry to ratchet up safety measures.

He said that many smart people have improved the plant over its lifetime. He said that VY often stood as number one in safety in the country.

“It's sad to see it shutting down,” Murphy said of the plant. “It's a premature act, because there's a lot of life left in the plant.”

In a press release, Brad Ferland, president of the Vermont Energy Partnership, praised VY's four decades of operation.

“Since its first day of operations in 1972, Vermont Yankee has generated low-cost and low-carbon electricity totaling about three-quarters of the electricity produced in Vermont,” Ferland wrote. “For 42 years, it has provided approximately 650 high-paying jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of local and state tax revenue.”

Citing the plant's charitable donations and its employees' volunteer activities, Ferland said the partnership “salutes Vermont Yankee for its many economic, environmental, and societal contributions to Vermont's quality of life. We wish Vermont Yankee management and workers a smooth decommissioning.”

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, wrote in a press release that the organization “has advocated for less costly and more sustainable ways to generate the power we need in Vermont.”

He wrote that Vermont's long-term solution to its energy needs rests in conservation, efficiency, and renewable power.

Burns continued, “Vermont's last long-term energy plan did not include Vermont Yankee. And Vermont utilities have not been getting any power from Vermont Yankee in recent years. Few can say they have noticed any difference.”

“Closing Vermont Yankee puts an end to a long chapter in our state's energy book,” he wrote. “It's fitting that as VY is unplugged, more Vermonters than ever are plugging in to energy from clean, local, renewable sources.”

Burns also thanked the Entergy employees for their years of work.

“We wish them well,” wrote Burns. “Our fight was never with them.”

'Performance in the face of adversity'

Senior trainer Dan Jeffries served 19 years at VY. He'll retire once his duties finish at the plant.

“The plant has reached the end of its life, and I've reached the end of my career simultaneously,” he said.

VY has run smoothly and safely, and that's a cause for celebration, he said.

When asked how he felt about the plant's closure, Jeffries said that all nuclear plants close eventually. Corporations, employees, and communities must all plan for that eventuality.

In a press release, Wamser wrote to employees, “Despite knowing that this was the last year of VY's operation, you have continued to improve our performance in all areas.”

“Your performance in the face of adversity has been outstanding and it has brought into sharp focus what a high-quality, well-educated, and skilled group of people make up this very special team,” wrote Wamser.

Entergy will lay off more than 200 employees on Jan. 19. The next round of staff reductions will occur in 2016.

When asked if employees were planning any final-day events at the plant, Entergy officials, some of whom were part of the decision to shut down VY, said that the day would be a difficult one for employees and that the community should be respectful of that.

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