On VY and Climate Change: a response to Guy Page in VT Digger comments

Guy Page avers that he’s “baffled at the seeming inconsistency of those who believe climate change is an imminent global threat AND want to close Vermont Yankee….”  He goes on to say: “If there is a fact-based rebuttal to my assertion, I’d love to hear it.”


Ok, Guy, here goes (not for the first time):


1) It’s incredibly hard to say how much global warming impact continued operations of VY have, but it is clearly NOT zero.  Much of the impact, of course, took place when the plant was built, so presumably Guy will argue that’s water over the dam.  Much more will take place when the plant is decommissioned, but that too will need to happen whether the plant continues to operate or not.  Let’s ignore both.


So the impacts we’ll consider are these: to continue to operate, VY has to consume nuclear fuel, which must be mined, milled, enriched, fabricated into fuel and transported multiple times.  All of this creates significant quantities of CO2.  Similarly, the waste products (spent fuel and the much more voluminous “low-level” waste) will need to go somewhere, whether they’re stored temporarily in concrete or steel casks, or ultimately disposed of in a final repository.  This too implies that carbon will be produced in the transportation, containerization, and (assuming geological disposal) in digging the repository.


In addition, VY produces VAST quantities of waste heat, and the problem we’re concerned with is actually not just the production of CO2, it’s global WARMING.  Producing enough heat to raise the temperature of a river the size of the CT is not something we can simply ignore.


So, on the one hand,  even ignoring its “sunk” CO2 costs, as it were, VY is NOT neutral when it comes to global warming.


2) Guy’s assumption seems to be that all of the VY power now being purchased should be replaced. As a matter of public policy, I suggest that’s simply wrong: we should be using less, a LOT less, power and study after study shows we can do so.  (Indeed, the studies indicate that Vermont and the US can cut consumption by roughly 20%, which is not very far from ALL of the power coming from VY into the state).

Energy efficiency – using power less wastefully – is the cheapest available energy option, yet we continue to belittle it in these discussions.  From a global warming perspective, the amount of greenhouse gases or actual warming it produces is sufficiently negligible to be considered as null.  And its other environmental impacts are exceedingly minimal. Thus, ignoring efficiency makes no sense whatsoever.  In fact, this should be the FIRST alternative considered, not the last.


Moreover, we should also at least begin a dialogue about conservation: just using less.  Turn off the lights when you don’t really need them.  Unplug the power supply from the electronic devices when they’re not in use, rather than drawing reserve power.  Consume less: most of the world does and most Americans, especially New England Yankees did, until relatively recently.  From a climate change perspective, this is the only truly zero impact option.  But since it implies a change in lifestyle, it’s rarely on the table.  That needs to change.


3) Renewables are considerably more available than Guy’s, and indeed most, of the arguments made around this issue, appear to presume.  First, many of us who are concerned about climate change and VY are also highly supportive of the in-state energy projects – Sheffield, Lowell, Readsboro, etc. – that are springing up around the state.  I for one want to see more of them, brought on faster.


Meanwhile, however, Vermont is part of a regional power system, and Vermont utilities can and do buy renewable power not just from HQ but also, for example from wind farms in NH and other neighboring states.  Remembering that VY’s total production is only 2% of the ISO-New England grid means that existing renewables can and will make up a significant portion of the remaining differences.


The fact that Vermont has made poor policy decisions in the past does not mean that we should make major errors going forward.  The VY decision – at least until there is a significant change – is about the next 20 years.  While renewables may not be readily available to replace what’s needed for the first few of those years, there is no reason to think they would be unavailable for, say, the last 15.  Given the massive federal subsidies in recent years and the extraordinary drop in the cost of solar power, there is every reason to believe that within the next 5 years, we can replace as much power as needed from a combination of renewable sources.


Unfortunately, there is simply no way to intelligently “do the math,” to make these arguments as concrete and obvious as they could be: there are far too many unknown variables.


I’ve never seen a well-done study of the amount of global warming impact of each portion of the nuclear fuel cycle which would be needed to give us the VY side of the equation.  We don’t know how much efficiency policy makers will choose to invest in, let alone how much the public will undertake on its own.  We don’t know whether Vermonters will choose to consume less, or how much state and federal incentives will provoke them into producing.


We can’t predict the New England wide fate of renewables we do know about (offshore and onshore wind projects, etc.), let alone those only now coming to market.  Finally, to the extent we DO know various of these things, it’s impossible to know WHEN each will happen, and thus to quantify how much power from fossil fuels MIGHT be required and for how long.


It’s important to recognize that while the State of Vermont lacks authority to shut down VY for safety reasons, that does NOT imply that the remainder of us need to be deaf, dumb and blind to the safety concerns beyond global warming that the plant’s continued operations imply. Putting those considerations into the equation – especially the possibility, however remote we hope, of a catastrophic accident, tips the scale definitively, at least for me, in favor of a strategy involving shutting down this aging plant and replacing it as soon as possible with cleaner, better alternatives.

Clairifying the problems of Nuclear Power in the Green Mountain State and beyond