by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
January 1, 2015
HOW ACTIVISM AND ECONOMIC PRESSURES CLOSED A NUCLEAR PLANT IN VERMONT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In the early afternoon of Dec. 29, Vermont's only nuclear power plant was powered down for the last time.
After a bit more than 42 years of operation, Vermont Yankee has shut down for good.
The vocal and active anti-nuclear movement in Vermont played a significant role in closing the nuclear plant in Vernon. But an even bigger factor than all the protests and marches and rallies and vigils over the years was the simple truth that Vermont Yankee was that it was no longer economically advantageous for Entergy, the plant's owner, to keep it operating.
Entergy fought hard to get a 20-year license extension for Vermont Yankee from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It sued when the state of Vermont sought to close the plant, and Entergy was prepared to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the principle that only the federal government has a say on nuclear issues.
Normally, if the NRC approves a license extension, that ends the argument. By law, only the NRC can regulate nuclear plants based on safety. States have no legal authority to address nuclear issues.
However, under Vermont law, any power plant must have a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) in order to operate
Entergy, which bought Vermont Yankee in 2002, agreed to this arrangement. They figured it would never be an issue. Unfortunately for Entergy, a series of mishaps at the plant - a cooling tower collapse, a transformer yard fire, spent fuel rods that went missing, and the discovery of tritium in wells that monitor groundwater - soured public opinion and confidence in the company running the plant.
In 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to direct the PSB not to issue Vermont Yankee a CPG. While the state couldn't order Vermont Yankee to be shut down based on safety concerns, the PSB still had the right to reject a CPG on the basis of other factors
That led to Entergy filing a federal lawsuit in 2011 against the state of Vermont, alleging that the state overstepped its regulatory authority.
As the case was winding its way through the federal courts, Entergy often prevailed. But the Louisiana-based company could not overcome the changing energy market, and the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan
When an earthquake and tsunami led to the meltdown and explosion of several reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daichi complex, we in Vermont learned that Vermont Yankee shared the same reactor design.
While there are no tsunamis in Vermont, New England is a seismically active region and is overdue for another big earthquake. The last was the Cape Ann earthquake in 1755.
With the possibility of the NRC requiring mandatory post-Fukushima safety upgrades, Entergy had little interest in upgrading a money-losing plant. This was especially so when electricity generated by plants powered by natural gas became cheaper than energy generated by nuclear fission; Vermont electric utilities could get cheaper power from hydro plants in Quebec.
With the closure of Vermont Yankee, there are only four nuclear reactors left in New England. Pilgrim, in Plymouth, Mass., has the same design as Vermont Yankee and opened at about the same time in the early 1970s. Milestone 2 and 3, in Waterford, Conn., are slightly newer, opening in 1975 and 1986, respectively. Seabrook, on the New Hampshire seacoast, is the newest of the four, opening in 1990.
Despite all the talk of a "nuclear renaissance," the reality is that nuclear power needs billions of dollars of federal subsidies to survive, and there still is no safe place to put the highly poisonous waste they produce.
in the case of Vermont Yankee. it's expected to cost about $1.2 billion to decommission and dismantle the plant, but there is only half that amount in a fund earmarked for the cleanup.
And nuclear energy looks more ridiculous as renewable energy starts taking off. With each passing year, more and more cities around the world can boast that all of their electricity comes from renewable sources.
In the short term, southern Vermont and neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire are facing a substantial economic hit from the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs at Vermont Yankee over the next few years. In the long term, we're facing a clean-up process that may take decades to complete
But the closure of Vermont Yankee will ultimately be a good thing for the state. An aged, creaky plant is now offline, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe has been reduced, and Vermont is well on its way to moving toward a renewable energy future.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A .from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and is an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.