Editorial: For Vt., neighbors, a huge sigh of relief
Two years ago in this space, we sided with Vermont officials who were fighting the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to extend the working life of the 41-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant by another 20 years. The value of the electricity produced by the decrepit plant, we believed, no longer outweighed the environmental risks it posed to residents of three states. The plant suffered frequent leaks of radioactive water, and the partial collapse of its cooling tower and its boiling water design – the same design used in the Fukushima Daiichi reactors in Japan – might similarly not be able to withstand a significant earthquake.
Entergy, the plant’s Lousiana-based owner, fought Vermont’s attempt to close the plant, and earlier this month a federal appeals court ruled against the state. It looked like the nuclear power plant, one of the nation’s oldest and most troubled, would continue to threaten the region for decades more. As recently as last spring, Entergy told federal regulators that though Vermont found that operating the plant was no longer in the public interest, it wouldn’t close it within the next five years. But that was then and this is now.
Yesterday Entergy announced that the plant would close by the end of next year and then, in effect, be mothballed for up to 60 years to allow radioactivity to dissipate before dismantling. It was neither the pleas of Vermont’s residents nor its battle with the state that did in Vermont Yankee. In the end, it was economics. The plant is small. It requires constant, expensive maintenance and a large workforce. It can’t produce power as cheaply as competitors burning natural gas. And unlike its non-nuclear competitors, the plant’s electricity has to include a premium to help cover the cost of its decommissioning, a bill expected to top $500 million.
We join the plant’s neighbors, including those in Keene and Hinsdale, in breathing a sigh of relief at the news of its impending closure. It was an accident waiting to happen. Extra scrutiny on the part of Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors will be required during the final year of the plant’s operation, since the temptation to scrimp on maintenance and repairs to a plant that’s closing will be strong.
When an old dam is torn down to allow alewives, herring and other anadromous fish to migrate upstream, we cheer. Similarly, we await an end to Vermont Yankee’s thermal pollution of the Connecticut River. The plant is allowed to raise the water’s temperature immediately downstream by up to 5 degrees in summer and 13 degrees in winter. The plant’s closing will offer researchers a chance to find out what happens when a river’s temperature is allowed to return to normal after 40 years of artificial warming.
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has sought to shutter the plant for more than a decade, said its closing provides an opportunity for his state to move further on the path to renewable energy. That should also be the goal of New Hampshire’s new State Energy Council, a group formed by Gov. Maggie Hassan to develop a long-term state energy strategy.
Entergy’s chairman and CEO, Leo Denault, blamed the “flawed structure” of New England’s electricity market for the closing, saying that the system does not adequately compensate baseline plants like Vermont Yankee for providing reliably priced power. But the answer to the region’s energy future doesn’t lie in extending the lifespan of its aging nuclear power plants or in an undue reliance on natural gas. It will be found in newer, cleaner, renewable technologies and measures that squeeze more and more work out of every kilowatt of electricity.