Editor’s Note: Evan Twarog is a new nuclear enthusiast writer from New Hampshire. We welcome his first article on the ANS Nuclear Cafe.
by Evan Twarog
The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is well known within the nuclear community for the messy legal battle that surrounded its license extension, which would have allowed the plant to continue to run until 2032. Despite the fact that numerous lawsuits ended up falling in favor of Entergy (the owners of the plant), Vermont Yankee closed in late December 2014 at the end of its fuel cycle after Entergy announced that the plant was no longer economically viable. Despite efforts of anti-nuclear activists, the plant ultimately closed because of lower natural gas prices driving the price of electricity down and the market flaws that worked against larger baseload power generators such as Vermont Yankee. I recently turned 18 and was given the opportunity to tour the closed facility with my dad, who has worked there for the past 16 years.
Vermont Yankee, even from several miles away, is a dominating presence in Vernon. The main reactor building is more than 100 feet tall, and the adjacent turbine building is over 60 feet tall. The “stack,” which is the tower that the ventilation systems run out of, stands about 200 feet tall, and you can easily see it from the town of Brattleboro. Vermont Yankee produced about 620 MWe when it was running, whereas several nuclear plants in the United States have capacities of more than 2000 MWe. Even these larger plants pale in comparison to facilities such as the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power station in Japan, which has an installed capacity of 8212 MWe.
At Vermont Yankee we first visited the control room, where my dad spoke of the hundreds of different switches and knobs and what they controlled. Between reactor school and the monthly training that he has gone through, my dad has spent more time learning to operate Vermont Yankee than he did getting his bachelor’s degree n mechanical engineering.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the day was visiting the refuel floor of the reactor building that stands more than 100 feet tall. To get to the refuel floor we had to go nearly to the top of the building. Getting from the Radiation Protection department—where we were badged with personal dosimeters that would measure the radiation dose we would be receiving during our tour—to the refuel floor involved taking an elevator up 10 stories. If we wanted a midday workout, we could have taken the stairs.
The refuel floor had three major components: an access to the reactor, the spent fuel pool, and the moisture separator pit that would be flooded during an outage to do work. The refuel floor itself was where a lot of the work during outages occurred. A massive overhead crane removed components of the reactor and moved them aside so that the fuel bundles could be accessed. A smaller crane was specifically designed to move spent fuel bundles from the reactor into the spent fuel pool. (I’m one of the few 18 year olds who can say that he stood on top of a nuclear reactor… just a little cool.)
As we worked our way down the several floors of the reactor building, we saw several of the systems that fed into the reactor to control the water level and flow. We didn’t have a chance to go to the main floor “Level 252” because the control rod drive mechanisms were being removed from the reactor by GE, since there’s no longer any fuel in the reactor.
Vermont Yankee was a boiling water reactor, meaning that there was no secondary coolant loop. Due to this design, during operation the plant’s turbine building was hot. However, since the plant is no longer in operation, we were able to walk around the turbine floor and even on top of the turbine. Walking into the turbine floor, two things stood out: the size of the turbine and how clean the floor was. The turbine itself was massive. The building was several stories tall, and massive steam pipes fed into it. The turbine and generator stood around 15 feet and easily 100 feet long. The floor was incredibly clean, almost to the point where you could have eaten off of it. This wasn’t something only I noticed in the turbine building during our tour.
Everything in Vermont Yankee was spotlessly clean. There was no indication that the plant had reached the end of its useful life or that corrosion was getting the better of it, as the plant’s opponents would have professed. Everything within Vermont Yankee was maintained with exceptional care and pride.
We turned in our personal dosimeters to the Radiation Protection department. I picked up a tiny amount of radiation: 1/10th what I’d get from a chest X-Ray or 1/20th what I’d get on a flight from Los Angeles to New York City. What most people don’t realize is that throughout our daily lives, we accumulate certain amounts of background radiation from the environment. There’s no distinction between “man-made radiation” and this background radiation. The dosage that the workers accumulate working at Vermont Yankee is only a small portion of the dosage that they pick up from the environment.
Driving away from the site, I left feeling incredibly impressed not only by the size of the facility, but also by the professionalism and knowledge of the people working there. The people who work at Vermont Yankee do their jobs with exceptional knowledge, professionalism, and pride.
While it’s a shame that Vermont Yankee had to close early, my dad is busy preparing a different path once he leaves the plant. I suspect that this is the case with all of the workers. Some have retired. Some have already moved onto other plants, and more are going to stick with Vermont Yankee throughout the decommissioning process. Every end marks a new beginning.
Evan Twarog is a senior at Keene High School in Keene, NH. He has been involved in pro-nuclear advocacy for several years, writing for Atomic Insights and Yes Vermont Yankee, as well as serving as an intern with the Ethan Allen Institute’s Energy Education Project. Beginning in late June, he will be attending the United States Coast Guard Academy, where he will study either civil engineering or operations research and computer analysis.