Sanders wants restitution for ratepayers (Rutland Herald)

By Susan Smallheer, Herald Staff

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., said Friday that Vermont consumers shouldn't have to pay for Entergy Nuclear's cooling tower mistakes, and called on the Vermont Public Service Board to review the situation.

Last week, Entergy Nuclear was forced to shut down both cooling towers at Vermont Yankee because of a leak in one tower and cracked support beams in the other.

Plant officials said the problem was due to a "flawed design" in last summer's repair job on the cooling towers, and inadequate number of support brackets installed on beams.

"The failure that occurred was one of Entergy's own making when it made shoddy repairs to its facility," the senator said. "At a time when Vermont consumers are experiencing higher and higher energy costs in general, it would be an insult to those consumers if they were held responsible for someone else's incompetence."

Voicing strong support of Sanders' appeal was the Vermont Department of Public Service, which regulates Vermont power facilities and said it had already launched its own investigation of the matter.

"That's a really good letter," said Stephen Wark, director of consumer affairs and public information. "We think it's great."

Wark said the department started a review of the purchase power agreement that Entergy Nuclear signed with the state's two largest utilities in 2002, when it purchased Vermont Yankee from a consortium of New England utilities.

"Our department is trying to dig deeply into it," Wark said.

Without the cooling towers operating in the summer, the plant was forced to reduce power sharply July 11 and rely on the Connecticut River for cooling.

On Friday, Entergy spokesman Robert Williams said the plant was still fluctuating between 20 percent and 50 percent power production, depending on the flow and temperature of the Connecticut River.

Vermont's two largest utilities, Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and Green Mountain Power, which purchase significant blocks of electricity from Vermont Yankee, said there was nothing they could do about the contract.

"We appreciate the spirit of what the senator is trying to accomplish. What we are struggling with is that the intent of the contract was to achieve optimal value for our customers," said Dorothy Schnure, spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power.

"Vermont Yankee power costs about 60 percent less than the market alternatives. While we are not pleased with paying these higher market prices to replace VY power, we would have to pay far more for the type of contract that offered insurance during single unit plant outages," she said.

Schnure noted that Vermont Yankee has run at a capacity factor above 90 percent, even with the cooling tower problems, calling it "a very good value."

Steve Costello, spokesman for CVPS, also said the Yankee contract has been great for the utility, and that some outages are expected. "There are gives and gets in every contract negotiation. This is a unit-contingent contract, meaning Entergy is under no obligation to provide energy or pay for replacement energy when the plant is offline or at reduced capacity," Costello said.

The Vermont Yankee contract is one of the reasons why Vermonters have one of the lowest electric costs in the region, he said.

Susan Hudson, clerk of the Public Service Board, said late Friday afternoon that the board had just received its copy of Sanders' letter.

"It will be given to our board members and it will be reviewed and then they will make a decision on how to proceed," Hudson said.

Williams, the Entergy spokesman, said that a deal was a deal.

"When these types of contracts are signed, there is always the assumption that there will occasionally be power reductions and shutdowns. It's unreasonable to expect that a plant would never encounter problems," he said.

"The important thing is how we respond to those challenges. We look into the root cause, put corrective actions in place, and share the lessons learned with the rest of the industry and public," Williams said.