Millions for education, but not one cent for tribute

By Meredith Angwin

viewfromVermontSince Entergy announced that it would close Vermont Yankee, I have been thinking about advice for nuclear plants going forward.  I mean, they haven’t asked me for my advice, but what the heck.  I have lots of opinions, and 20-20 hindsight.

Nothing for outreach

Let’s look at Entergy and Vermont Yankee.  I was not living in Vermont in 2002 when Entergy bought Vermont Yankee; I moved here two years later.  I understand, however, that shortly after the purchase, Entergy closed the Vermont Yankee visitor center.  It was certainly closed by the time I arrived in Vermont.  Penny-wise and pound-foolish!  (Yes, I have opinions.)

Tribute begins: Power uprate

Meanwhile, Entergy wanted approval from Vermont’s Public Service Board for a power uprate, and the approval was ultimately granted.

Part of Entergy’s deal for the power uprate was that Entergy would contribute $7 million for the cleanup of Lake Champlain.  Lake Champlain is located in northwest Vermont.  Vermont Yankee is located on the Connecticut River at the very southeast tip of Vermont.  Lake Champlain is on the other side of the Green Mountains from Vermont Yankee, in a totally different watershed.  In other words, it is hard to imagine any place less affected by Vermont Yankee than Lake Champlain.  But, Entergy closed the visitor center at the plant, and they made a deal to clean up Lake Champlain in order to get the power uprate.

In other words, outreach ended and the tribute payments began.

(Note:  The legislature attempted to override the Public Service Board on this, but apparently the legislative bill passed only the Vermont house, and not the senate.)

This lake really doesn't have much to do with Vermont Yankee

This lake really doesn’t have much to do with Vermont Yankee

Once the Public Service Board (with guidance from those who want to make nuclear power too expensive to operate) got its first tribute payment, it was hooked on getting more money from Entergy.  If it could get Entergy to fund Lake Champlain, truly the sky was the limit for pet projects!

As Kipling said about the foolish practice of attempting to pay off Viking raiders: “Once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane.”

Once you pay the DaneGeld...

Once you pay the Dane-geld…

Tribute continues: Dry casks

Entergy needed a pad for dry casks.  Now, I don’t even know why this would come before the Public Service Board, but it did.  Dry casks are clearly a nuclear safety issue and are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  However, the original Memorandum of Understanding (under which Entergy purchased the plant) did not include a reference to dry cask storage.  So the game was afoot!  In my opinion, the Board was now addicted to getting money from Entergy.

In return for dry casks, Entergy had to set up and fund the Clean Energy Development Fund.  This fund pays for wind turbines and solar installations. Funding levels varied for this fund, but were always several million dollars a year.

As a matter of fact, with Vermont Yankee not going forward after 2014, the Clean Energy Fund is also ending.  This is having an impact.  An important pro-wind advocate recently said that he expects no new wind farms will be built in Vermont for many years.  (For me, this is a bit of a silver lining in the dark cloud of Vermont Yankee’s closing, but that is another story.)

Safety diesels, the possible attempt that failed

Recently, Entergy needed new safety diesels installed.  The Public Service Board held off on ruling about this installation until it found itself being sued by Entergy in federal court.  Once the federal case opened, the Board finally issued a snarky ruling allowing the diesels.

The Public Service Board caused a lot of excitement, last-minute rulings, and public grandstanding about the emergency diesels.  Under other circumstances, this could have become another attempt at extracting Dane-geld.  Entergy, however, had been winning in court over the regulation of nuclear safety.  So the Public Service Board was stuck.  It had to back off.

Tax it all!

Meanwhile, the attempts at extracting money continue:

Seven hundred thousand dollars to the Red Cross for possible emergency evacuation shelters.

Massive increase in “generation” taxes, partially to make up for the Clean Energy Development Fund being funded only until 2012.

Tax the fuel rods to make up for the ending of the Clean Energy Development Fund.

Outreach is key

My conclusions are simple.  Don’t bribe legislatures and public service boards, because the bribes will get bigger and ultimately unendurable.  Spend money for outreach instead.

What kind of outreach?  Here are some ideas:

Keep the visitor center open.

Have training days for teachers, essay contests for students, etc. CNTA (Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness) has a terrific program.

Give plant tours (yeah, it IS a pain in the butt after 9/11) to grammar school and high school teachers, maybe even to students.

Instead of insisting that employees who want to talk about the plant at schools and Rotary clubs do it on their own time, set up a plan whereby an employee can have three work-days a year for such activities, after showing the managers where and when she will be talking.

I have more ideas, but I won’t share them for fear of being seen as self-serving about my own outreach efforts and how they could have been supported.  However, the more outreach the plant does, the more the outreach will grow—and the more supporters the plant will have.

My opinion:  Nuclear plants should spend hundreds of thousands (no, it won’t be millions) in outreach, and not one cent for tribute.

Not about Entergy

I have now whipped Entergy up one side and down the other, and I need to say a little more.  This isn’t really about Entergy.

I don’t blame Entergy for what it did and the compromises it made.  Entergy was faced with a group of dedicated opponents, and it made the best deals it could, in order to keep the plant online.  It kept the plant operating, kept the clean energy coming, and kept the jobs for the workers.  I am grateful for what it did and very sympathetic with the difficulties that it faced.

As I said, this isn’t about Entergy.

Instead, it is about the future.  It’s about my opinions.  It’s about what to do in the future when a nuclear plant is faced with a shakedown.  Don’t hand over the money to your enemies—give that money to your lawyers.  Sue!

But this isn’t really about lawsuits, either.

Not just lawsuits

Lawsuits may be necessary to avoid paying Dane-geld, but they don’t help with public opinion.  I started this blog post with a statement that the visitor’s center should have been kept open.  I didn’t start with a list of Public Service Board rulings.  That was deliberate.  First things first!

Outreach is key.

I think that Entergy in Vermont did not have much of a choice.  But going forward, other plants will have choices.  I think funding outreach and education is the most important choice.  Outreach is a must-have, not a nice-to-have.

My advice on Going Forward for Nuclear Energy:

Hundreds of thousands for outreach, but not one cent for tribute.

_____________________

Meredith-AngwinMeredith Angwin is the founder of Carnot Communications, which helps firms to communicate technical matters.  She specialized in mineral chemistry as a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  Later, she became a project manager in the geothermal group at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).  Then she moved to nuclear energy, becoming a project manager in the EPRI nuclear division.  She is an inventor on several patents. 

Angwin formerly served as a commissioner in Hartford Energy Commission, Hartford, Vt.  Angwin is a long-time member of the American Nuclear Society and coordinator of the Energy Education Project.  She is a frequent contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe

15 Responses to Millions for education, but not one cent for tribute

  1. Alasdair Lumsden

    Hi Meredith,

    Loved the article, and think you’re spot on with regards to outreach vs Dane-geld. Paying off boards and opponents is definitely a recipe for them coming back for more, and sometimes the best defence is a strong offence through the courts to get a fair and just outcome.

    And of course winning hearts and minds is crucial in a post-Fukushima world, kids/students visiting a nuclear plant is something they won’t forget growing up, especially if they really enjoyed themselves.

    Alasdair

  2. James Greenidge

    Good Message, Meredith!

    Lessons every nuclear plant location and personnel can learn from! Question is whether they’d be wise enough to take it! I hope every nuclear blog carries this! Antis have hogged the podium long enough!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  3. Excellent advice, if only the nuclear industry will heed it. Both Vermont Yankee and Seabrook Station have hosted plant tours by the students in my Dartmouth ILEAD energy class. They were very eye-opening to visitors. Seabrook has a visitor center, but that’s all we could visit on the last trip, because Seabrook had to install yet another security ring of fences, concertina wire, and guards, making plant visits too complex and labor-intensive.

  4. John McClaughry

    Meredith is quite right. Since Entergy bought VY from the two Vermont utilities in 2002, the anti- nuclear forces, headed by now-Gov. Peter Shumlin here have viewed it as a cash cow, to pay the DaneGeld whenever they wanted to plow the driveway. I described this in 2005 as a resurrection of simony – selling ecclesiastical favors – which Pope Gregory VII outlawed a thousand years ago. It is a shabby story that reflects great discredit on little Vermont.

  5. Given that utility mergers and merchant plants are the new reality, how does one avoid the taint of being “carpetbaggers”.

  6. The nuclear industry is failing to achieve its full capacity to power the energy needs of the public. It has allowed itself to become victims of a small, highly sophisticated group of self-interested parties who have leveraged a large, mostly unspoken, force. That force is public fear. Those self-interested parties have and continue to use, as leverage, the fear of nuclear energy to wield its power. The vivid account provided by Meredith Angwin is a textbook case of, to put it bluntly, extortion.

    There is no reason this predicament needs to continue unabated. The nuclear power industry is the safest energy industry. The public’s fear of nuclear energy is based on myth and ignorance rather than fact and science. Expose the myths for what they are and educate to eliminate ignorance. But the long-term problem has a deeper origin.

    The industry cannot solve the long-term problem by making short-term payments to licensing gatekeepers. Public fear is the root of the long-term problem and it pervades every action of the industry. The industry cannot expect to resolve the problem simply by publishing literature that defends how safe the industry is. The fear itself must be resolved, directly. Solve the problem at the root and you solve the problem for the entire tree.

    I was honored to be invited to edit the Wiley Nuclear Energy Encyclopedia and after working on that project, I was left with the clear impression that here is an industry that is significantly under-utilized. We went to press just weeks after the tsunami hit the coast of Japan and impacted the Fukushima plants. The event and the public response made the root of the problem vividly clear to me, as I wrote in my preface to the encyclopedia: “We were once terrified of fire, too.”

    Nuclear professionals who have had long careers in the industry may be so accustomed to the way things are that they cannot even imagine a shift on the order of which I imply is possible. I am convinced it is possible.

  7. Entergy had to set up and fund the Clean Energy Development Fund. This fund pays for wind turbines and solar installations.

    Huh, isn’t this kind of redundant to any paper pusher? Like, you’re already doing clean energy, right?

  8. Back in 2005, John McClaughry wrote a commentary about the Lake Champlain extortion. In that post, he quotes the Vermont State Auditor. The quote shows another side of the coin: the governance side, not the Entergy side.

    Basically, extortion will corrupt the institution that practices extortion.

    In November 2003, in return for Public Service Department support for a reactor power uprate, Entergy agreed to pay $7.8 million to cleanup algae in Lake Champlain, 180 miles away, plus $2.1 million to subsidize low income home heating. The deal was criticized not only by the anti-nuclear activists, but also by state Auditor Elizabeth Ready: “(Vermonters) health and safety could be placed at risk if utility regulation is allowed to become a pay-to-play endeavor, fueled by extracting millions from applicants for pet projects in order to get the Public Service Department’s stamp of approval.”

    Note: John McClaughry is founder of the Ethan Allen Institute. The Energy Education Project, headed by Meredith Angwin, is part of the Institute.

  9. There’s a blogosphere regular, GRL Cowan, with an interesting point of view, which is that governments quietly act to keep industries that pay heavy taxes (i.e., Dane Geld) in operation. That includes suppressing alternative sources that do not pay such taxes. His view is that governments actively suppress nuclear, as an alternative to fossil fuels like oil and gas, because they have grown dependent on oil/gas tax revenues. Not sure why they don’t just tax nuclear. I think his view is that such taxes tend to be a given percentage of the value of the fuel, and as we all know, on a per MBTU basis, uranium costs almost nothing.

    Anyway, the case of VY provides an interesting test of his hypotheses. You would think that VT’s govt. would work behind the scenes to keep VY open, as it funds their pet projects that Meredith described. Well, for whatever reason, any such “scheme” did not work out in VY’s case. The VT govt. managed to kill their Golden Goose. The VY case may be a data point that counters his thesis.

  10. In my opinion, this goes way beyond the case of direct funding, by the nuclear industry, of govt. projects in order to “buy” permission to operate. Far more prevelant is the “Dane Geld” of agreeing to more and more absurdly strict levels of (very expensive) regulations and requirements, in order to, essentially, “buy” permission to continue to operate.

    Unlike the fossil industry (esp. coal), nuclear almost never puts up a fight, or humbly asks if all those requirements are cost effective, in terms of reducing public health risks and environmental impacts (that is, compared to regulations imposed on other industries or energy sources).

    This sad situation is indeed due to a lack of public education and outreach. Due to lack of public and political support (real, or percieved by industry), the industry feels compelled to agree to excessive regulation. They perceive that if they do anything to leave the impression that they are not doing “everything possible” to reduce the chance of release (pollution), in order to “save money”, the opposition would have a field day and the public would lynch them. It is also true that NRC promulgates such excessive regulation in the first place out of fear of political pressure from anti-nuclear organizations.

    This is very much due to lack of outreach and education, and the (propoganda) efforts of nuclear opponents. They try to argue that nuclear’s troubles are due to poor economics, and not their efforts. We all know better. The high costs are clearly (albeit indirectly) due to excessive regulations which in turn are due to their efforts. Public outreach would go a long way towards countering those effects.

  11. Mr. Krivit, your thoughts have helped my “framing.” I find myself fighting these little fights. The core idea that “nuclear power is underutilized” is very helpful to me.

    Jim, yes, maybe a little extortion? Hmmm…I had a twitter exchange with @Arclight (Apthorpe) about “When does taxation become extortion? Is a little extortion okay?” Arclight’s final tweet in that conversation sums it up well:
    A good parasite doesn’t kill its host. Vermont is a bad parasite. :/

    Alasdair Lumsden, thank you for the support and the clear summary. Mitch…so true! Your comment made me smile for sure. James, I always appreciate your comments. Thank you. Also pgragman, Hargraves, McClaughry…

    Thanks to everyone for these great comments!

  12. James Greenidge

    Meredith, if you had the sponsorship and the time, would you be open to do your own “anti-FUD” forum and debate tours around the country? It’d be fun seeing you go toe-to-toe with Arnie and Helen (and take no prisoners!) — if they had the guts to step into the cage with a lioness.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  13. Hi James

    Thank you for the good words. I like the “lioness” analogy!

    I do wish we could have some kind of traveling pro-nuclear road show.

    There are plenty of anti-nuclear road shows. For example, a group of nuclear opponents is holding a set of panels about decommissioning Vermont Yankee and how dangerous the process will be. The same three panelists will appear over and over in many local towns. Similarly, a German pediatrician toured this area talking about the horrible dangers of living near nuclear plants.

    There are potential practical difficulties with a proponent tour, however. Nuclear advocates tend to be very polite. Nuclear opponents–not so polite. Opponents would almost certainly try to disrupt any traveling-show pro-nuclear events.

    Do you think it would be worth trying to organize something like this? I’m not sure. However, I think Pandora’s Promise (the movie) is doing a great job.

    Thank you for the comments!

  14. James Greenidge

    Re: “There are plenty of anti-nuclear road shows. For example, a group of nuclear opponents is holding a set of panels about decommissioning Vermont Yankee and how dangerous the process will be. The same three panelists will appear over and over in many local towns. Similarly, a German pediatrician toured this area talking about the horrible dangers of living near nuclear plants.
    …opponents–not so polite. Opponents would almost certainly try to disrupt any traveling-show pro-nuclear events.”

    That’s one hell of a pathetic state of affairs. It’s worst than boxing with both hands tied around your back. What in god’s name are nuclear professional organizations and atomic workers unions waiting to fight back for? For the FUD steamroller to push their careers and families out into the street?? We DESPERATELY need — yes, LIONS with gonads like you in total charge their public affairs offices, Meredith!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  15. James,

    Thank you for the praise but I don’t really deserve it. It’s not so easy to prevent people from disrupting meetings and so forth. And most pro-nuclear people (including myself) don’t want to confront people.

    Also, often the anti-nuclear people’s facts are so horribly wrong that it is hard to take the people seriously. For example, there was a big flap for a while about testing for strontium in fish in the river near VY. When the Dept of Health measured the strontium, it was background level (of course). Well, an anti-nuclear person could easily get that wrong, could say it wasn’t background level— this would be understandable to some extent.

    But the opponents go further. At one meeting I was at, the anti-nuclear questioner claimed that strontium in the river was KILLING the fish. Strontium was not just IN the fish; she claimed it was killing the fish dead! It was actually funny, because the moderator then asked the man from the Vermont Dept of Health if that fish had been alive when the Dept of Health guy had caught it for testing! Which of course it was.

    So the moderator and the health dept guy were chuckling…but the woman who asked the question still seemed to think that the fish had died of radiation poisoning.

    Well, anyhow, I am rambling a little here, but I am just trying to say that I don’t have an answer to this conundrum. Except to keep showing up. It’s the only thing that works (IMO). And it is hard.

    Thanks for the good words, James.