Damned (Vermont) Yankee

In yet another blow to the mythical “nuclear renaissance,” (unicorns, anyone?) Entergy Corporation announced Tuesday that Vermont Yankee, its troubled Fukushima-like nuclear plant on the bank of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vermont will close in late 2014.

This is a victory for activists who mounted a four-decade campaign of resistance to the plant, since it first split atoms in 1972.  Citizens Awareness Network, the New England Coalition, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and hundreds of individual citizen activists, marched, rallied, submitted expert testimony and fought for a clean, sustainable future for their children in the courts, the state legislature, on the streets and in the hills and hollows of Vermont.  Greenpeace was in on it too, but only in the 21st century and so we tried to keep our hooting appropriately modest.  Sierra Club even put out a press release.  (I don’t remember seeing them around, but what do I know?)

As much as Entergy tried to buy or bully support, it never worked.  In February 2010, in the midst of a blizzard of both tritium leaks from the plant and out-and-out lies from Entergy bosses, the state senate voted 26-4 to close the plant.  That legislative determination led to an unsurprising court battle (Entergy outspent the state b$5 million to $1 million) in which a federal judge vetoed the senate’s action as overreach into affairs controlled by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  That decision affirmed was by a federal appeals court earlier this month and you could hear Entergy packing its carpetbag and getting out while it still had a sandspit of legal high ground on which to stand.

Activists can’t take all (or perhaps even most) of the credit. Low energy prices, resulting from a glut of cheap, fracked natural gas played a role, as did ham-handed management by Entergy (the company responsible for this year’s Super Bowl blackout).  Having just spent $5 million in court fees defending Vermont Yankee, Entergy is now shutting down and taking a $181 million charge on its balance sheet.  (If Entergy can’t even make money, why should they be trusted with the most dangerous substances on the planet?)

It really is about the dollars.  A natural gas electric generating plant can be built in a year for $1 billion.  To generate the same power from a nuke takes at least a decade and $10 billion.  And although natgas is killing the planet as quickly as coal, the legal liability is much lower on CO2 emissions than radioactive waste dumps.  (Sigh.)

(And to be fair to Vermont activists, many of the same people are fighting an extension of a natural gas pipeline, because they don’t want to partake in the fracked gas that ruined someone else’s hometown.)

The news of Vermont Yankee’s shutdown comes on the heels of layoffs across Entergy’s nuke plants: fewer hands on the control rods because the bosses in New Orleans (Entergy’s HQ) can’t manage to make a profit.  At least the folks in Vermont will sleep easier if we can get through the next 14 months without another cooling tower collapse (2007), transformer fire (2004) or lost radioactive fuel rods (2010).

Homer Simpson: call your job counselor.  Vermont citizens: rejoice.  The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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