Hearings look at Vermont Yankee steam dryer concerns

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(Host) The state wants Vermont Yankee to protect ratepayers in case a key component of the plant fails as it produces more power.

The Public Service Board held hearings on the issue this week.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The technical issues before the board concern the plant’s steam dryer. This is a key piece of equipment that takes moisture out of the superheated steam before it’s sent to turbines to generate electricity.

David O’Brien is commissioner of Public Service., the agency that represents consumers in utility cases. He emphasizes that the issue is not one of nuclear safety – rather it’s a matter of reliability.

The plant is now authorized to produce 20% more power. And the state’s concern is that if the steam dryer breaks, the plant could be shutdown, or would have to operate at lower power conditions. If that happens, O’Brien says, ratepayers could end up paying more money.

(Obrien) “We’re not saying definitively that the steam dryer won’t work. We believe Entergy has done an excellent job, better than anyone else in the industry in analyzing this issue, and trying to understand the dynamics of the steam dryer. We just believe that there is still some degree of risk that the steam dryer could have a failure of some kind and that it could affect Vermont ratepayers in terms of our long-standing allocation from the plant.”

(Dillon) Steam dryers in plants similar to Vermont Yankee have developed cracks after they were allowed to produce more power. Inspections at Vermont Yankee have turned up a total of 62 cracks – before the plant began making more power.

The cracking issue was discussed by both sides as technical experts testified before the Public Service Board.

Under cross-examination, Entergy Vermont Yankee engineer John Dreyfuss said he could not predict with absolute certainty that the increased power would not cause more cracks.

(Dreyfuss) “Ratepayers cannot be certain, however, I am very, very confident that we will not have cracking.”
(Lawyer) “You’re very confident, but you can’t be certain? Is that correct?”
(Dreyfuss) “I cannot be absolutely certain.”
(Lawyer) “Thank you.”

(Dillon) The state says Vermont utilities could end up paying $54,000 – or about $19 million a year if there are problems with the steam dryer. The state wants to change an existing ratepayer protection agreement so Entergy could cover the losses.

But company spokesman Brian Cosgrove says it’s not necessary to change the agreement. He says testing has shown that the dryer will not fail under increased power conditions.

(Cosgrove) “Vermont Yankee’s position is that the power ascension testing was extremely thorough and indicates that there’s no need for further ratepayer protection. There’s already an agreement with the Department of Public Service that provides a four and a half million dollar fund for any down powers related to power uprate. So that has already been put in effect. We believe that is sufficient going forward.”

(Dillon) About $2.4 million of that fund has already been allocated to pay utilities for a power outrage due to a fire at Vermont Yankee in 2004.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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