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Vermont Yankee

Nuke plant’s demise ‘muddies waters’ for hydro projects’ relicensing

One of the more surprising effects of Vermont Yankee’s announced permanent shutdown late next year could be on the relicensing of the Turners Falls, Northfield Mountain and Vernon hydroelectric projects.

“We didn’t see this one coming,” said Andrea Donlon, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council, which has been monitoring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 5½-year licensing process for five hydroelectric plants along the river. That process is finishing up setting parameters for 71 studies over the next two years to be used in deciding the terms of operating licenses for hydroelectric plants like First Light Power’s Turners Falls and Northfield Mountain stations.

The glitch comes with plans to stop operating the 41-year-old nuclear reactor at Vernon, about eight miles upstream from Northfield Mountain and just upstream from TransCanada’s Vernon Dam. That shutdown, expected to come sometime in the last three months of next year, could interfere with some of the baseline studies in the 20-mile “Turners Falls Pool” that extends between the Turners Falls and Vernon dams, muddying the proverbial waters for what the 2014 studies of water temperatures, dissolved oxygen levels and other water-quality data will compare with a planned 2015 study.

FERC, along with engineering contractors for First Light and TransCanada, are wrestling with how to control for the variable of having the plant shut down in the middle of the 2014 study period, or whether there’s any way to do so. FERC has scheduled 9 a.m. meetings for Nov. 25 at the Northfield Mountain Visitors Center and Nov. 26 at Marlboro College Graduate School in Brattleboro, Vt., to identify which of the aquatic studies will likely be affected or unaffected by a plant shutdown, as well those which could be modified.

The planned shutdown of Vermont Yankee, tied to the end of its own fueling cycle, would make the 2014 data irrelevant, said Donlon.

“You don’t want First Light and TransCanada to put out all this money for studies and then have the data be useless,” she said, adding that the likelihood of FERC agreeing to a delay seems unlikely.

David Deen, the watershed council’s river monitor for Vermont and New Hampshire, agreed, saying “I don’t think it can be done because there are so many other things that depend on having the baseline information to look at. I don’t know how they’re going to work their way out of this one.”

Deen said he believes that 11 TransCanada studies for the Vernon hydroelectric plant and 14 FirstLight studies for the Northfield Mountain and Turners Falls stations would be impacted.

“When they stop generating power,” he said of the Vernon reactor, “they’re going to reduce their thermal discharge by 96 percent,” with the remainder of the heated, nonradioactive water release into the river a function of cooling the reactor’s spent fuel pool. “... The tenor of the river will change significantly when they stop discharging that thermal plume into the river.”

One out, he said, could be if Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, which is responsible for issuing a water discharge permit for the nuclear plant to meet federal Clean Water Act requirements, agrees with the watershed council’s petition to require use of the plant’s cooling towers instead of discharging heated water into the river.

If that happened, Deen said, “We wouldn’t have a problem, because Vermont Yankee would be at a much reduced thermal discharge level, probably comparable to the 96 percent.”

Meanwhile, the nonprofit watershed council, which submitted more than 300 pages of testimony on all of the proposed relicensing issues, from hydropower impacts on fish passage behavior and erosion to recreation and historical buildings, managed to convince FERC to increase the data available. For example, Donlon said, FirstLight will add two more water-level monitoring sites to better show fluctuation at different points in the Connecticut.

Unfortunately, said Deen, “FERC was shortsighted in denying requests to include climate change impacts in the scope of studies,” and it refused to call for FirstLight to evaluate feasibility of changing Northfield Mountain’s operation to a closed-loop operation that would no longer cause river fluctuations that critics say are tied to streambank erosion.

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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