Good riddance to Vermont Yankee

January 12, 2015

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is finally being shut down by its corporate owner--but it still poses a hazard to the public, writes Steve Ramey.

AFTER 40 years of lumbering decrepitude, the Vermont Yankee in the southern Vermont town of Vernon was shut down for good on December 29.

While the closing is no doubt good news to those of us who petitioned, rallied, sat in, and blocked the gates to shut it down over many years, the reasons that the reactor was shut down are complex.

A combination of the plant's own expenses and failing infrastructure, the boom in cheap and abundant fracked natural gas making nuclear power too costly, and the dogged determination of thousands of protesters over the plant's 40-year existence combined to force the plant's owner, Entergy, to finally give up the ghost and do what groups like the SAGE Alliance and Vermont Citizens Action Network demanded.

Entergy, the Louisiana-based energy giant infamous among survivors of Hurricane Katrina, bought Vermont Yankee in 2002 in a series of nuclear power plant purchases the company orchestrated to capitalize off the expected imposition of a carbon tax or other governmental penalties to the fossil fuel industry.

Protesters rally in Burlington against the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor
Protesters rally in Burlington against the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor (Michael Ware | SW)

Instead, the nuclear power industry has been hit with added expense after added expense, from increased security following 9/11 to being forced to upgrade their crumbling facilities. Meanwhile, the natural gas industry enjoyed a boom in recent years with its environmentally devastating but very profitable process of hydraulic fracturing.

Entergy's financial blunders didn't stop it from putting Barrett Green, the finance executive who recommended Entergy buy Vermont Yankee, in charge of overseeing the decommissioning process. With people like Green, backed by the company that caused the Super Bowl blackout in 2013, running the process, it's understandable that some people remain cynical about Entergy's promises of a safe and efficient decommission and cleanup.

The struggle to shut down Yankee may be over, but the possibility of a nuclear disaster caused by the waste that will be stored at the plant, coupled with Entergy's dubious concern over a no-longer-profitable site, is far from gone. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given Entergy 60 years to decommission and finally close the plant, which is a long time for a corporation whose sole purpose is to make money.

Entergy's feet will have to be held to the fire by the same people who were the driving force in making nuclear power not economically viable, lest Entergy weasel out of its obligations and foist the financial burden onto taxpayers, a well-worn ploy in the nuclear industry playbook.

THE NARRATIVE spun by the corporate press is that protest played no part in Yankee's closing, but a longer view of history exposes the true influence of citizen activism.

Vermont Yankee was the target of anti-nuclear protests before it was even open for business back in 1971 and hundreds were arrested as part of protests during that decade. As the powerful anti-nuclear movement swept across the country in the late 1970s and 80s, spurred on by the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Vermont Yankee continued on, but the construction of new nuclear plants had all but stopped, due mostly to fear of disasters like the one at Chernobyl. The closing of Yankee drops the number of nuclear plants operating in the U.S. below 100.

It wasn't until Entergy wanted to renew Yankee's license and uprate its power by 20 percent in 2006 that activism kicked off again.

Vermont Yankee had become a wreck by the time a cooling tower partially collapsed in 2007. In January 2010, underground pipes were discovered to have been leaking radioactive tritium and cobalt into the Connecticut River.

Hundreds of protesters marched on the Statehouse in Montpelier to present the legislature with thousands of names saying they didn't want the plant's license renewed and that they wanted the state to focus on clean renewable energy instead. Hundreds more marched on the plant itself to demand they shut it down. In February 2010, the state senate voted 26-4 to not allow the Public Service Board to consider renewing Yankee's license citing the widespread dangers and Entergy's coverup of those problems.

Then the Fukushima disaster happened in Japan. In 2011, thousands of people from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts descended on Vermont Yankee in protest. Hundreds were arrested, hardening the state legislature's stance against the plant, despite being successfully sued by Entergy multiple times.

Don't be fooled by the corporate press--the widespread resistance to Vermont Yankee and Entergy's inability to find friendly faces in high places was one of the decisive factors in shuttering Vermont Yankee.

ENTERGY'S FINANCIAL wizards like Barrett Green banked on fooling people in government and on the ground that nuclear power was a clean alternative to the fossil fuel industry. Nuclear energy, however, is not a magic bullet to prevent climate change.

To start with, its dangerous nature means the construction of a nuclear plant that will be "safe" for even a few years is going to take a decade to build, while wind and solar farms can be built en masse in a fraction of that time. Action needs to be taken on climate change as soon as possible, but we can't rely on dangerous plants being built or, worse yet, relicense old dilapidated plants like Yankee when that money instead could be going to research and development of clean and renewable energy.

Proponents claim that nuclear power is "carbon free," but when you factor in the mining and refining of the uranium needed to fuel nuclear reactors, then plants on average produce 250,000 tons of carbon a year. There is also the enormous long-term costs, both in housing nuclear waste and decommissioning old plants. No government on earth has come up with an adequate plan to store nuclear waste. The sites the U.S. have designated for storage would be filled instantly with waste if they ever did actually open.

The cost for decommissioning Vermont Yankee is estimated to be over $1 billion, but as plant spokesman Martin Cohn told Vermont Public Radio, "This is the first Entergy facility to be decommissioned...We are literally writing the book for Entergy"--so who knows what it will actually be in 60 years? All the money going to house waste and safely decommission dead plants could be going to fund real clean and renewable energy.

As Vermont Yankee winds down its 40-year run, Entergy plans on reducing the workforce down to a skeleton crew, cutting the 550-person workforce in half later this month and finally getting down to 50 security guards in five years.

This is unacceptable. The decommission process can't be run by people like Barrett Green, who saw Vermont Yankee as easy money when he recommended Entergy buy it, but "a bad investment" when he recommended Entergy decommission the plant. A safe decommission process must be led by the workers who kept that wreck of a plant running despite management's neglect for 40 years.

The plant is still dangerous. We need the workers making sure it's safe, not the moneymen trying to find the least expensive way out.

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