It appears natural gas had more impact on the end of nuclear power in Vermont than several generations of protesters, legislators and lawyers failed: Vermont Yankee will cease operation in 2014. Just two weeks ago, the nuclear power plant’s owner, Entergy, won a decision before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that had national implications for the continued operation of nuclear power plants. The court ruled in part that states must leave issues surrounding nuclear plant safety to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it seemed that Yankee was clear to continue operation (pending a possible appeal of the decision by Vermont) to the end of its current license, in 2032.
But in an announcement Tuesday timed to beat the stock market opening, Entergy went in another direction.
It was not safety or legislative action that led to this decision but, rather, simple economics. Nuclear power, which at various times has been hailed as the safe, clean power of the future, has steadily become more expensive relative to the cost of natural gas and due to increasing regulation. And the cost of building new nuclear power plants runs into the many billions of dollars, requiring significant investments by the federal government beyond any private money. All this means that the United States is faced with a question similar to the one that Entergy faced: Is nuclear even worth it?
Nuclear power opponents would say that it hasn’t been worth it for decades. The opposition to nuclear power has typically been focused on the risks associated with the radioactive fuel, and with the unknowns about how spent fuel should be stored safely over the long term. The Fukushima disaster in Japan revealed just how valid those concerns are. But when faced by the reality of plant closure, it is clear that simply ceasing operation will not completely allay safety concerns — it will simply start a new phase in Yankee’s long life. The nuclear fuel will stay in place, at least for a while, and the state’s leaders, who have worked long and hard to bring this day about, will now have to work long and hard to make sure the eventual outcome of Entergy’s decision is a good one for Vermont.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, long an opponent of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation, pivoted swiftly to the twin themes of jobs and greenfield development. The 650 or so Entergy jobs in Vernon — about 240 of which currently belong to Vermont residents — are vital to Windham County, and Shumlin pledged to work with Entergy and the governors of neighboring states to transition those employees to new opportunity. He also said he saw opportunity to redevelop the site of the power plant into a greenfield site, making use of the existing, robust transmission lines and other resources to keep at least some economic output going.
The governor, and Speaker of the House Shap Smith, both deflected questions about the state of the decommissioning fund, simply saying that they will work hard to ensure that there will be enough money to pay for decommissioning, and that the process will move as swiftly as possible. By law, Entergy has 60 years to complete its decommissioning, a stretch of time that seems far too long. There were few answers Tuesday about how much influence the state will have — legal or otherwise — over shortening the decommissioning period.
The governor and legislators certainly will be looking for leverage in the coming weeks and months, as well they should. If there is one thing we have learned recently, it is just how little control Vermonters actually have over the plant’s future. Our leaders need to get up to speed quickly on what sway the state has over the process ahead.
The governor said repeatedly Tuesday that Entergy’s CEO, Leo Denault, has pledged to work closely and willingly with Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts to make the coming process as painless as possible. We need Entergy to live up to that pledge. The company’s history in Vermont has been troubled since it purchased Yankee in 2002. The trouble mostly arose from a lack of trust in the company’s commitment to safety and honesty. This is Entergy’s chance to turn that trouble into a graceful exit.
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