Permanent shutdown of Vermont Yankee nuke plant announced–Monticello should be next

Xcel’s Monticello nuke plant deserves the same fate, ASAP

This is significant to Minnesota as Vermont Yankee is similar in age and design to the Monticello nuke and also to the four destroyed Fukushima-Daiichi reactors that seem to pose an expanding threat with the passing of time.  (VT Yankee is a couple of years older, slightly smaller and has had more high-publicity scandals.) “Fukushima radiation leaks reach deadly new highExposure to emissions would be fatal within hours, say Japanese authorities, as race to build frozen wall begins.

All seem to admit that tuna caught off the US West Coast contain radioactivity from Fukushima.  The debate is over the magnitude of the health hazard, not whether there is a health hazard.  Hot Tuna? – The Fish of Fukushima . Belonna, the Norwegian NGO, reports:

“In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refused to answer questions or to explain the exact location and number of monitors, or the levels of radiation, if any, being recorded at existing monitors in California, the San Jose Mercury News reported.”
“On March 21, 2011, the EPA pulled 8 of 18 air monitors in California, Oregon and Washington state that track radiation from Japan’s nuclear reactors out of service for ‘quality reviews.'” 
“By April, 2011 the EPA had temporarily raised limits for radiation exposure by rewriting its Protective Action Guides (PAGs) to radically increase the allowable levels of iodine-131 by 3,000 times, a 1,000-fold hike for exposure to strontium-90, and a 25,000-fold increase in exposure limits to radioactive Nikel-63.”
“The EU followed suit by implementing an ’emergency’ order without informing the public that increased the amount of radiation in food by up to 20 times previous food standards, according to Kopp Online and Xander News. According to EU bylaws, radiation limits may be raised during a nuclear emergency to prevent food shortages.”

The State of Vermont has been strongly opposed to the continued operation of Vermont Yankee, and has tried to use state authority to shut it down. Many years ago the State of Minnesota tried to use its authority to limit radioactive emissions from the proposed nuke plants at Monticello and Prairie Island. While direct state authority over nuclear power was denied in both cases, the Minnesota view of acceptable radioactive emissions largely prevailed in federal regulations.  Similarly, the opposition of the State of Vermont was likely a key factor in the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. These days, Minnesota regulators seem to have a weaker grasp of nuclear issues.   The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved an “uprate” (power increase) of Monticello, going along with a 20 year extension of the operating license.  Subsequently, as reported on August 6, 2013 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:

“Monticello’s return to full service follows Xcel’s disclosure in July that the cost of the five-year upgrade to the reactor had doubled. Originally budgeted at $320 million, the cost of the project reached $655 million.”
“The expense is one of the reasons Xcel asked regulators to approve a rate increase for its 1.2 million electric customers in Minnesota. The utility last November asked for a 10.7 percent rate increase …” 


Of course, this money will have been largely wasted, when, inevitably, Monticello is also shut down.  If the MPUC was on it’s toes, it would be directing investment towards conservation and efficiency, which would yield far more “energy” for Minnesotans at far less cost than pouring money into dangerous, worn-out nuke plants built in the 1970s. But, this would require acting more in the public interest rather than dancing to the tune of Xcel Energy.

Regulatory Capture” of utility regulatory commissions is a reality.

“Regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure ….”


But, there is a lot more at stake here than an incremental ripoff of Xcel Energy Minnesota customers. The Monticello and Fukushima reactors are General Electric-designed “boiling water reactors.”  This design has long been recognized to be inherently more dangerous than some other nuke plant designs.  A description is here: Basic Design Information for Boiling Water Reactors … (but note that the info on the disaster in Japan is not current).  Here is another description.

“Spent fuel rods” are removed from nuclear reactors when they are considered used-up for power generation.  But, they are still highly radioactive and will be so for thousands of years.  They also generate a lot of heat.  They are moved from the reactors to “spent fuel pools.”  The original idea was that they would stay in the pools, cooling, for a year or so, and then go somewhere else.  But, the nuke power industry was started up without systems in place for managing the spent fuel.   (Congress and the Obama administration continue to promote and fund the building of new reactors even though there are still no “permanent” systems in place.)  Nobody in their right mind wants nuclear waste coming to their state or community.  So, spent fuel rods have been piling up in the pools since the plants started up.  Monticello started up in 1981.

Now we come to one of the details making these General Electric nukes so special:  We tend to think of the spent fuel pools as like swimming pools–sort of concrete holes in the ground.  Many are.  But nukes like Monticello have their “pools” many feet up in the air.  They are more like water towers than swimming pools.  If they are cracked by an earthquake or other disaster, the water drains out and there’s not much to be done about it.  Massive radiation releases ensue.  (I have stood on the gratings over one of these pools.  The racked fuel rods produce a blue glow–Cherenkov radiation–through about twenty feet of water.) Another key point, this one applying to all our nukes, is that they require massive amounts of cooling–far more than coal or gas plants of the same capacity, due to their low thermal efficiency.  So, they are all located on rivers or shorelines.  They are, in effect, ideally designed to dump their radioactive loads into rivers, lakes, and oceans.  Thus, the Fukushima reactors are busily contaminating the biota of the Pacific Ocean.

If Monticello were ever to dump its load, the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, with all their fish and other critters, would be radioactively contaminated. The Fukushima-Daiichi reactors were destroyed by an earthquake/tsunami.  This is less likely in Minnesota.  But that doesn’t mean the plant is immune to natural disasters.  For example, this article in Nuclear Energy Insider discloses that Monticello is not designed to withstand tornados as strong as have recently occurred in Oklahoma. Few if any people in the nuclear industry would have admitted in advance that the Windscale, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima nuclear disasters were possible. The official Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission says (Message from the Chairman):

“Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster ” that could and should have been foreseen and prevented.” 
“Our report catalogues a multitude of errors and willful negligence that left the Fukushima plant unprepared for the events of March 11.”
“The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.”


Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee, doesn’t admit, of course, that Vermont Yankee is unsafe.  The Entergy announcement says: “Decision driven by sustained low power prices, high cost structure and wholesale electricity market design flaws for Vermont Yankee plant.” ” … the estimated operational earnings change, excluding these special items, is expected to be modestly accretive within two years after shutdown, and cash flow is expected to increase approximately $150 to $200 million in total through 2017, compared to Vermont Yankee’s continued operation.”

Whether one is worried about the nuclear hazards, or the wasted money and inflated electric bills, Monticello, like Vermont Yankee, needs to go. Perhaps, as the Japanese investigating commission says:  “…each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.”

Alan Muller

Energy & Environmental Consulting

1110 West Avenue Red Wing, MN, 55066


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