The announcement two weeks ago that Vermont Yankee would shut down created an anticlimax that has left a kind of eerie silence over the political landscape.
For more than 40 years Vermont Yankee, one of the nation’s early nuclear power plants, was a political, social, economic and cultural touchstone. For most of that time, it was a steady producer of about one-third of Vermont’s electric power. At the same time it was the source of pervasive and persistent anxiety and the focus of intense political hostility.
Now the plant’s owner has announced it would close the plant by the end of next year. It’s a matter of dollars and cents. The plant is no longer a winning proposition for Entergy, the Louisiana-based company that owns it.
And yet this business decision comes after an intense legal struggle between the company and the state of Vermont over Vermont’s laws allowing the Legislature to intervene in the decision about whether the plant should continue to operate. Entergy enlisted some of the nation’s top lawyers and mounted a strong case that the state of Vermont was hard-pressed to defend against. First, a federal judge in Brattleboro and then a federal appeals court ruled on behalf of Entergy. It was important for Entergy to prove its point, whether or not it was going to continue to operate Yankee.
Then the anticlimax.
Over the years numerous issues related to Vermont Yankee have been on trial in one form or another, and not the least of them was nuclear power itself. Legally, the question was settled, but the public, or some segments of it, has always been uneasy about nuclear power. Citizens groups have kept watch on the plant and on the regulatory bodies whose job it is to monitor the plant. Protesters have been arrested, including a hardy band of older women who have made the plant their cause in recent years.
At the same time, the plant has existed in the Windham County community as a high-tech source of power, employment and revenue. Engineers, scientists and technicians operate and maintain the plant, and they are confident what they are doing is safe and beneficial for the community. These two communities — the friends and foes of Yankee — have existed side by side for decades, perhaps never really understanding one another.
The protesters have ample reason to fear. Nuclear power, as we have seen when plants have malfunctioned, has immense destructive power. And nuclear fission is mysterious to most people. They can’t see it happen, as they can see the burning of coal. And the damage is of a nature that is hard to conceive.
The willingness to tolerate nuclear power is one of the dividers in our society. Some people want nothing to do with it. Many, perhaps most, are willing to use it, if we have to, as long as they have been assured it is being handled correctly. Some are perfectly confident in our nuclear power establishment. This divide was never bridged in the long history of Vermont Yankee, though the political leadership generally catered to the middle group.
Until Peter Shumlin. Shumlin was elected governor as a declared foe of Yankee, and he did his best to close it down. He failed. But then after all the storms of rhetoric and endless battles, Entergy called it quits. It was like the boxer who has been through 14 rounds, battered and bruised but ahead on points, when he throws in the towel.
Entergy says it was economic. Natural gas is cheaper. But economics encompasses much. The company’s economic calculations had to have figured in new investments in maintenance and improvements, which it has been accused of skimping on in the past. Apparently, the projected cash flows were not going to cover the company’s needs. End of story.
It’s the end of a long story in the life of Vermont — from those early days back in the ’70s when nuclear power was seen as either an energy miracle or a corporate plot, to more recent days when a new energy mix is struggling to be born.
Vermont Yankee had its day.
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