Thursday, January 15, 2015
VERNON, Vt. — There was little fanfare, no ceremonial “big switch” to throw and the lights didn’t even flicker as the 620-megawatt Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down Monday afternoon.
It was a slow, quiet process that took about three hours to bring the 1972 boiling water reactor offline.
Since September, the plant had slowly ramped down its output to prepare for its scheduled shutdown. It started the day Monday at 74 percent power, and decreased its output to 32 megawatts, about 5 percent of its capacity, before it was disconnected from the grid at 12:12 p.m.
Around 10 a.m., engineers hydraulically inserted the first of many reaction-slowing “control” rods between the reactor’s fuel assemblies. Thirteen rods later, the reactor was disconnected from the electrical grid. After another seven rods, engineers pressed the twin “SCRAM” buttons, which plunged the remaining 69 rods into the reactor’s core and brought it to a halt at 1:04 p.m.
The core was expected to cool below boiling by 8 p.m. Monday, and should be about 100 degrees by Tuesday afternoon, according to Dan Jeffries, engineering instructor for the plant.
While Monday’s shutdown took just a few hours, it marked the beginning of a long decommissioning process.
On Jan. 5, crews will begin to take apart the reactor, a 12-foot-tall, 19-foot-wide enclosure for the plant’s 368 fuel assemblies, which will be removed. Jan. 19, the plant will go into “safe storage” to await final decommissioning.
Two of the men who brought the power plant online 42 years ago were there Monday to see it come out of service. Michael Lyster was the plant’s operations manager back then, and Warren Murphy was its site vice president.
“Sitting in the plant manager’s office today, I think this is probably the only thing that hasn’t changed at all,” said Lyster.
“We had no idea the plant would still be around 42 years later,” said Murphy.
Though he was surprised the plant operated so long, Murphy believes it could have gone longer.
“For those that consider (Vermont Yankee) an ‘old’ plant, I ask them which part of the plant they’re calling old,” Murphy said. “In my opinion, (the shutdown) is very premature. There’s still a lot of life left in this plant.”
After hundreds of millions of dollars in capital improvements and repairs over the decades and the hard work of smart people, Murphy said, the plant is “far better” than it was in 1972.
Anytime there was an issue at another nuclear plant in the country or the world, Murphy said, it led to improvements at Vermont Yankee and other nuclear facilities.
“From an operations standpoint, (the partial meltdown at) Three Mile Island was probably the best thing to happen to the nuclear industry,” Murphy said.
The 1979 Pennsylvania incident spurred greater internal oversight in the industry, as well as cooperation among plants, which shared their best practices in an effort to make nuclear power safer.
Safe or not, the plant has faced opposition since before it was built.
Workers were often greeted with picket lines when they arrived at the plant.
“(Protests) had an impact on our employees and people at home,” said Murphy, who was vice president of the plant when it came online in 1972.
Murphy said the negative press nuclear power has gotten over the decades was also tough to take.
Despite the decades of opposition to the plant and nuclear power in general, there were no protesters gathered outside the Vernon facility to celebrate its shutdown.
Vermont Yankee spokesman Martin Cohn said he thought there would be some small, after-work gatherings to mark the plant’s shutdown Monday.
“It’s a bittersweet day for all of us,” he said. “It’s an incredible moment watching a plant like this that has provided energy for so long shut down.”