Nuclear Power Faces Big Test in Vermont
VERNON, Vt. - The pro-nuclear governor here has gotten a cream pie in the face. Compost has been thrown on a nuclear power plant manager. Protesters, including several grandmothers, have been arrested for trespassing at the plant gate.
This was not what President Barack Obama, who hopes to spark a renaissance in nuclear power, had in mind this year when he urged an end to "the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs." In Vermont, the same old debate rages on. As an embattled nuclear plant seeks to extend its operating life - and become a symbol of the conflict over whether to expand nuclear power - it's "no nukes" vs. "pro nukes," and not much in between.
The no-nukers are winning. On Feb. 24, the state Senate voted 26-4 to close 38-year-old Vermont Yankee when its license expires in two years, even though it employs 640 people; pays $16.5 million a year in state and local taxes; provides one-third of Vermont's power, and helps make the state's carbon footprint the region's smallest.
Vermont Yankee is one of more than two dozen aging U.S. reactors that have leaked radioactive tritium from underground pipes. Its case has cast a pall on the revival of nuclear power and revived the anti-nuclear movement.
"Fights like this don't come along very often," says Jim Riccio of Greenpeace USA, one of a half-dozen groups seeking the plant's closure.
No nuclear plant has been started in the USA since the Three Mile Island accident - the 1979 partial core meltdown at a Pennsylvania reactor - vaporized public support for atomic power.
A nuclear renaissance has long been advocated by some political conservatives, such as former senator Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers. Because atomic energy produces much less carbon pollution than fuels such as coal, they've been joined by some environmentalists (early Greenpeace organizer Patrick Moore, Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand) and some more liberal politicians (Obama and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.).
In his State of the Union Address, Obama proposed "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" to reduce carbon emissions and promote U.S. energy independence. In February, he announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two reactors to be built in Georgia.
Americans are increasingly sympathetic. A Gallup Poll last month found that 62 percent favor nuclear power as one way to generate electricity, the highest percentage since Gallup began polling on the topic in 1994.
Vermont Yankee's application for a 20-year license extension, however, has mobilized veterans of the nuclear protests of the 1970s and people not yet born when their elders were being arrested at places such as Seabrook, N.H., and Diablo Canyon, Calif.
Opponents have long argued that nuclear power is unsafe -vulnerable to everything from operator error to terrorism - and produces radioactive waste for which there is no long-term solution. Now, they're also challenging the wisdom of operating vintage reactors past their original 40-year licenses.
Larry Smith, spokesman for Vermont Yankee, says its opponents won't listen to reason: "They're hippies from the '60s who want to be against something, and it's nuclear power."
The anti-nuclear movement, though, has matured.
It has lawyers, lobbyists and engineering consultants. One group, the New England Coalition, has sued to force the plant to shield the nuclear waste storage area from view and to monitor the temperature of storage casks containing radioactive waste. Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network says her group "uses the plant's own information against it. We're not the hippy-dippy, no-nukes types."
No easy path
Given the nuclear industry's history of cost overruns and construction delays, many lenders and investors are leery. So the industry's future hinges on public support for government loan guarantees and for permission (from state regulators) to pass on construction costs to ratepayers before plants are finished.
About 20 "new generation" plants, touted as safer and more efficient than those of Vermont Yankee's age, are proposed. But they would take years to build.
So to maintain its 20 percent share of U.S. electrical production over the next decade, the nuclear industry must keep running the plants it already has. To this end, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has granted 20-year license extensions to 59 of the 104 commercial reactors located at 65 sites around the country. Most of the rest, like Vermont Yankee, have applied for extensions or will do so.
Vermont Senate President Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, says Vermont Yankee has national implications for what he calls "the head-in-the-sand attitude that we can continue to run 104 aging plants past their design life. We're an example of how elected officials might take a more active role against that."
Many observers, such as incoming NRC historian Thomas Wellock, view public support for nuclear power as broad but shallow - "just one accident away from heading south in a hurry," says John Kassel of the Conservation Law Foundation.
For that reason, Vermont Yankee is a stone in the shoe of the nuclear industry:
- In 2007, one of the plant's two cooling towers partially collapsed. Although there was no direct safety threat, a photo of gushing water quickly spread over the Internet.
- In January, the plant reported that tritium, which can cause cancer if ingested in large quantities, was leaking into ground near the Connecticut River. Tritium levels rose for more than a month before beginning to drop.
(Last month, plant officials said they had found and fixed the leaks and would pump out 300,000 gallons of ground water and remove tritium-tainted soil. Days later, however, they announced that small amounts of Cesium-137, another radioactive substance, also had been discovered in soil near the plant.)
- The tritium leaks came from underground pipes that plant managers previously told state officials did not exist. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, who has supported the plant's extension, called it "a breach of trust."
New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., which owns the plant, disciplined several managers, two of whom had been featured in an "I am Vermont Yankee" campaign. The company says there was no deliberate deception, just a misunderstanding over the definition of underground pipes.
The explanation fell flat.
"If the board of directors and management were infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not believe they could have done a better job destroying their own case," said Republican state Sen. Randy Brock, a surprise vote against the plant.
Vermont, alone among the states, has the power to deny a nuclear license extension. (It negotiated the authority when Entergy bought the plant.) Although the NRC staff has recommended an extension, the state Senate vote would retire the plant unless senators reverse themselves (and the House also votes yes).
Shumlin, the Senate president, says that won't happen: "Once you've lost Vermonters' trust, it's almost impossible to get it back."
The NRC and the nuclear industry say plants can run safely at higher power levels and for more years than defined in their original licenses. But the tritium leaks have undermined confidence.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee, has said he is "appalled by the safety procedures not only at Vermont Yankee, but at other nuclear facilities across the country who have failed to inspect thousands of miles of buried pipes."
There are other signs around the nation that a nuclear renaissance is not inevitable:
- Ameren Corp. has suspended plans for a second nuclear reactor in Missouri after lawmakers failed to repeal a 1976 law barring utilities from charging customers for certain new power plant costs even before it starts producing electricity.
- Florida Power&Light stopped work toward two new reactors in January after state regulators rejected the company's rate increase request, a decision CEO Lew Hay said was "about politics, not economics."
- Efforts to reverse state bans on nuclear plant building - eight states have them - stalled in Minnesota and West Virginia.
What's striking about the Vermont Yankee debate is how, despite Obama's appeal for new thinking, the debaters stick to their traditional arguments. Neither Smith, the plant spokesman, nor Brad Ferland, head of a pro-nuclear business group, knows of any nuclear opponents in the state who've switched sides.
It's a bit of a culture war. While plant proponents extol its steady supply of relatively cheap electricity, opponents talk about renewable sources - solar, wind, wood - and using less power.
Even Vermonters who might be expected to be open to changing their minds are standing pat.
- Annette Roydon, 64, lives a few miles from the plant. She's the town of Vernon's emergency management director and deputy health officer. She runs a 65-acre organic farm and attended the Putney School, Marlboro College and Antioch College - all staunchly liberal.
"I'm very granola," she says.
She supports extending the nuclear plant's license. So do the chairmen of the Selectmen and the school board, and almost everyone else in town. In 2009, the annual town meeting unanimously passed a resolution backing the extension. The town has hired a lobbyist in Montpelier to press the case.
Roydon says she doesn't doubt the safety of the plant or nuclear power. She says the nuclear industry is the most heavily regulated in U.S. history; that no one has ever died in an accident at a U.S. nuclear plant; that Vermont Yankee employees feel the plant is safe enough to live near it.
"I'm more concerned about a train derailment than I am about the plant," she says, and doubts Vermont's 180 part-time "citizen legislators" have the expertise to decide its fate.
The plant accounts for more than half Vernon's revenue. "If it closed, how'd we pay our bills?"
- Cort Richardson, 58, seems like someone Obama hopes will reconsider nuclear power: a former protester who now works with government regulators and industry engineers on the waste issue. He's come to take an analytical, unemotional view of nuclear power.
But Richardson is no more sanguine about nuclear now than when he was among more than 1,400 protesters arrested at Seabrook 33 years ago. For all the complaints about safety and waste, "nuclear power's Achilles heel has always been its economic underpinnings," he says.
Nuclear plants are so expensive to build (at least $6 billion to $8 billion) and so needy of public subsidies, he says, "You simply can't afford to build enough of them to make a difference" in the nation's energy needs.
Richardson, who voted for Obama and admires him, says he wishes he could talk to the president about nuclear power: "He's such a bright guy. I can't believe he's really bought this story."