MONTPELIER — A top executive with Entergy Nuclear tried to convince a skeptical Public Service Board on Friday that problems at the Vermont Yankee plant during the 10 years of Entergy ownership were not relevant to whether the state should allow the plant to run for another 20 years.
T. Michael Twomey, vice president for external affairs for Entergy Wholesale Corp. of White Plains, N.Y., testified for much of the day Friday, the fifth day of hearings on Entergy’s request for a new state certificate of public good to operate Vermont Yankee for 20 more years.
Twomey and his attorney Robert Juman, of the New York law firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, tried to deflect a long list of problems at the Vernon reactor in the 10 years Entergy has owned the plant. Juman raised objection after objection, claiming information about the 2007 and 2008 partial collapse of Yankee’s cooling towers was not relevant, and that neither were other issues at the plant, including the company’s response to the tritium leak there in 2010.
But James Volz, chairman of the Public Service Board, allowed the questions from Robert C. Kirsch, an attorney with the Boston law firm of Wilmer Hale, hired by the state to help it with the case and to cope with Entergy’s four law firms. Volz said he was taking Entergy’s objections under advisement.
Juman said many of the questions he objected to were a pretext for issues relating back to safety at the plant, since the state was precluded by federal law from considering safety issues, which are solely the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Department of Public Service is arguing that Entergy has been a poor partner for Vermont in the past 10 years and is not a trustworthy business, citing the numerous problems at the plant and “misleading” testimony from plant executives about the existence of underground pipes carrying radionuclides. The state has also argued that the nuclear power plant is a poor match for the state’s overall goal of encouraging the development of alternative forms of sustainable energy.
The misinformation, given under oath to the Public Service Board, led to the disciplining of 11 Entergy Nuclear employees at Vermont Yankee.
Twomey said the decision about the discipline was done at the “high level of the corporation.”
“I do acknowledge we had issues, serious issues in 2010,” Twomey said under cross-examination by James Dumont, an attorney representing the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.
Twomey also got into a verbal dance with PSB member John Burke, who questioned Twomey about Entergy’s intentions in signing an agreement with the state in 2002 when it purchased the reactor promising not to challenge state authority over the plant and not to operate it beyond March 21, 2012, if it didn’t have a new state permit in hand.
But Twomey smoothly deflected the question repeatedly, leading Burke, a lawyer himself, to express more than a little frustration.
A contract is a contract, Burke said, noting he teaches contract law. He asked Twomey who “bore the risk” of the 2002 agreement.
Twomey maintained it was “legislative interference” in the state permit process that put Entergy in the position it is now — operating without a state permit. Yankee’s original certificate of public good expired March 21. “We didn’t bargain for legislative action,” he said.
Twomey maintained that Vermont was unique in requiring a reapplication for an existing state permit, noting other states that host nuclear plants have not required a new permit for an existing plant.
“We did make a timely application,” Twomey said.
“Honestly, we don’t want to go to court,” Twomey said at one point, causing more than a few raised eyebrows in the hearing room. Entergy has filed challenges to rulings by the PSB in recent months, not to mention its lawsuit against the state of Vermont pending before the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, and it is fighting a new state generation tax.
Twomey said he was assigned to the Vermont Yankee plant in July 2010 as part of Entergy’s response to the political fallout from the leak of radioactive tritium at Vermont Yankee and the disclosure that executives had “misled” the Public Service Board over the existence of underground pipes that carried radionuclides.
Earlier in the day, professor Richard K. Lester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an expert hired by Entergy Nuclear, said that only a mix of wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency could accomplish President Barack Obama’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. If nuclear is “off the table,” Lester said, the country’s goals would be much lower.
Lester, who is head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, said the operation of Vermont Yankee could act as a “bridge” to reach the state’s goals for sustainable, low-carbon energy. Lester said the low price of natural gas was making construction of new nuclear power plants economically unfeasible, at least for the next 10 years.
While the push is to shut down coal-fired power plants with natural gas-fired plants, that would reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent, while nuclear plants would produce only 10 percent of natural gas plant emissions, he said.
Natural gas prices would have to more than double, Lester said, before new nuclear power plants would be economically feasible.
Entergy Nuclear spokesman Jim Sinclair said 650 “good-paying jobs,” more than $100 million in economic benefits to the Vermont economy, and “maintaining a major source of baseload electricity in the region that significantly benefits the region’s air quality” were at stake during the Public Service Board hearing.
The hearings are to resume Tuesday for their second week, but a decision on Entergy’s application is not expected until September.
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