Utilities spending for replacement power after tower collapse

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(Host) Vermont’s two major utilities are spending about $70,000 a day to buy replacement power because of a cooling tower failure at Vermont Yankee.

Meanwhile, state and federal regulators say they want answers about why the tower collapsed last week, despite regular inspections.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Vermont utilities have a contract with Entergy Vermont Yankee to buy electricity at favorable rates. But the contract is unit contingent. That means the companies get that good price only for power produced at Vermont Yankee. When the nuclear plant is down, or when the plant is throttled back as it is now, utilities have to buy power on the open market.

(Costello) "It is costing us money at this point, averaging about $50,000 a day."

(Dillon) Steve Costello is spokesman for Central Vermont Public Service Corporation, the state’s largest electric utility. He says the utility is absorbing the cost of replacement power and it’s not yet clear if the company will try to recover those costs through higher rates.

(Costello) "It really depends on a bunch of factors including the duration of this and what the final bill is."

(Dillon) A cooling tower partially collapsed last week, sending water gushing from a large pipe and leaving a gaping hole in the structure.

Entergy, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, cut power output by 50% until repairs are made.

Green Mountain Power says the loss of Yankee power is costing them about $20,000 dollars a day.

The cooling tower failed despite a recent round of inspections. And Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien, who runs the state department that represents consumers, wants to know why. O’Brien will visit the plant on Wednesday.

(O’Brien) "I want to understand what they were doing in terms of their inspection. What did their inspection entail? What was the root cause of the failure and then looking at those two data points and understanding why they didn’t connect? Why wasn’t the inspection procedure sufficient to identify this sort of potential failure?"

(Dillon) But O’Brien doesn’t believe that the cooling tower collapse was caused by recent modifications that boosted the plant’s power output by 20%.

And he says the equipment failure did not compromise key safety components.

(O’Brien) "The number one thing that I think is so important here at the end of the day, because this is not a safety related event, is – what this means in terms of a larger confidence issue. That’s the key and I know Entergy understands that, but they’ve got work to do to restore that confidence."

(Dillon) Critics of nuclear power say the accident does call into question the underlying safety of the plant. James Moore is an energy specialist with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. He’s especially alarmed by allegations that Yankee’s workers have safety concerns. The union representing plant employees made the allegation last week.

(Moore) "That’s a huge red flag when you have workers at the plant saying corners are being cut and public safety is at risk."

(Dillon) Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says the NRC encourages workers to come forward with any information about plant safety.

And Sheehan says it makes sense to look at whether the cooling tower failed because of increased stress from the recent power increase.

(Sheehan) "That’s obviously a very logical question to ask. Did the increase flow through the towers? Was there some correlation between that and the failure? And we just don’t have those answers at this point.

(Dillon) A Yankee spokesman said he didn’t know how long the plant would have to operate at reduced power levels.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.

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