The struggle to close Vermont’s nuke

March 28, 2011

Paul Fleckenstein reports on the fight to get a dangerous nuclear plant closed.

FIVE HUNDRED protesters lined up in front of the troubled Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vt., on March 20 for a vigil in solidarity with the people of Japan. "I'm here to support people in Japan and to support shutting down this plant," said Katie, a student at the nearby Marlboro College.

Calling for immediate shutdown and cleanup of the site, the rally invoked the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where damaged reactors and fuel storage pools have spewed radiation into the environment for weeks. "[Vermont Yankee] is the same model, the Mark 1, as the one at Fukushima," pointed out Russ Grubiec, who lives minutes from the nuke.

The struggle to close Vermont Yankee is at a critical juncture. This month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an operating license extension to the plant's owner, Louisiana-based Entergy Corp., to run the 40 year-old nuke for another 20 years, despite a long list of safety problems. There are ongoing leaks of radioactive tritium into the groundwater. Soil tests near the plant show elevated levels of highly toxic cesium-137. The collapse of one of the plant's cooling buildings recently made national headlines.

Vermont's congressional delegation wrote in protest of the re-licensing, "It is hard to understand how the NRC could move forward with a license extension for Vermont Yankee at exactly the same time as a nuclear reactor of similar design is in partial meltdown in Japan."

Nevertheless, the 40-year-long campaign of petitions, rallies, legal challenges and civil disobedience has never been as close to success as now. Recently elected Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin ran on a platform of closing Vermont Yankee and the Vermont Senate voted 33-11 to deny permission to Yankee for continued operation. For his part, Shumlin dismissed the NRC re-licensing as irrelevant because of a 2002 agreement Vermont signed with Entergy requiring state approval for operations past 2012.

Debra Stoleroff, an organizer with the Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Alliance, is optimistic that Entergy will close the nuke. But though the Vermont Senate shows no signs of backing down on its vote to close Yankee, says Stoleroff, opponents need to keep up the pressure on legislators because "you can't underestimate Entergy."

Others are less confident. Clay Turnball is an activist with the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, a group that has been fighting Vermont Yankee owners since 1971 over unsafe operation of the reactor.

Turnball notes that there are signs in Entergy's communications with state regulators that it may contest Vermont's jurisdiction over plant operations--opening the door to federal preemption of Vermont's ability to force the plant to close. If the battle ends up in federal courts, Turnball fears that the state wouldn't prevail. He thinks the NRC won't reverse its position on re-licensing and close the plant, because "that would be an admission that Vermont Yankee is not safe."

WHEN THE plant does eventually close, there are big questions about what happens then. Instead of the immediate clean-up called for by anti-nuclear activists, says Stoleroff, Entergy plans a so-called "safe store," which means mothballing the plant for 30 years. Yankee currently keeps more spent fuel rods accumulated beside the reactor on the banks of the Connecticut River than are at the damaged Fukushima plant. According to a Nation report:

Spent fuel pools at Fukushima are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have. The exact same design flaw is in place at Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant of the same GE design as the Fukushima reactors. At Fukushima, each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.

Entergy spent enormous sums of money in the last election cycle with its "I am Vermont Yankee" public relations campaign that touted Yankee's supposed environmental benefits and good jobs. In response, advocates of closure call for a "just transition" for workers, their families and communities. Green Mountain Labor Council President Traven Leyshon says that "Vermonters should also be working with the workers' unions to make sure that the new jobs created in cleaning up Yankee and in alternative energy are good family-wage union jobs."

Given the resources that Entergy has for advertising and the $35 million salary of its CEO, J. Wayne Leonard, there should be no problem providing for workers after closure--including employing them over the many years that a responsible decommissioning will take.

Thinking ahead to the potential to build a stronger movement to close nukes across the U.S. and turn toward renewable energy, Turnball emphasizes that closing Yankee would be "precedent-setting, and the situation is very dynamic." Closing the nuke while replacing its power with renewables would be a great demonstration of where the whole industry should go.

And if the closure doesn't go through in 2012 as the state is insisting, some activists are suggesting mass direct action to shut down the plant.

At the vigil outside the plant gates, Eddie, a middle school student, said: "It's outrageous that they're still running Vermont Yankee and other plants after what happened in Japan. They just want to make money, and they don't care if it can cause a catastrophe...We're told that we can't fight back, but events like this one and like what people did in Wisconsin show that we can."

Dave Buckingham contributed to this article.

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