Decade in Review: Vermont Yankee demise shaped turbulent decade

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VERNON — The past 10 years have been tumultuous for the state's only nuclear power plant, which started the year 2010 with a massive radioactive leak, and an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the Vermont Senate against its continued operation.

Multiple federal court victories later for Entergy Nuclear against the state, and the future of the plant looked solid in August 2013.

But that all changed two weeks later, when Entergy announced it was shutting Vermont Yankee — for good.

The decade ended with the plant permanently shut down, its fuel in dry cask storage, and the plant in the midst of its first year of demolition and clean up. Vermont Yankee shut down on Dec. 29, 2014, about 16 months after its corporate parent Entergy Nuclear announced that economics — and the low cost of electricity thanks to the abundance of fracked natural gas — had spelled it out for them. Vermont Yankee's cost to produce power was too high for the New England market.

Entergy Nuclear had owned the plant since 2002.

Entergy's decision to close Vermont Yankee — the first of several decisions it made to shut its other nuclear reactors in the Northeast — meant upheaval for hundreds of families in the region, as Vermont Yankee employed about 600 people at the 620-megawatt reactor. And there were many others just as dependent on the Vernon plant.

The company pumped tens of millions of dollars into the local economy, as well as the state's tax coffers.

It's not just Yankee that Entergy shut down. Pilgrim, outside of Boston, and Indian Point, a multi-unit facility north of New York City, have either shut down or will be shortly.

Despite Vermont's reputation as being critical of Entergy Nuclear and nuclear power, the decision was financial, not political.

"The decision to close Vermont Yankee in 2014 was based on a number of financial factors, including sustained low natural gas prices, a high cost structure for a single-unit plant and market design flaws that do not provide adequate compensation to merchant nuclear plants for the fuel diversity benefits they provide," Entergy Nuclear spokesman Joe Lynch said recently.

The decision took people by surprise - only two weeks earlier, the company had won a long, protracted and expensive legal battle in federal court over what role the state of Vermont could play in the plant's future.

The state lost, repeatedly, in its effort to exercise more control the future of the plant.

At stake were the nearly 600 well-paying jobs — on average, paying more than $100,000 a year — as well as millions of dollars of local corporate purchases and donations to the Windham County region's non-profit organizations.

The August 2013 decision had its roots not just in the low-cost fracked natural gas, but a natural tragedy on the other side of the world.

Days after a tsunami devastated parts of Japan on March 11, 2011, and set off what is arguably the world's second worst nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daichi facility, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Entergy Nuclear a license for another 20 years of operation of Vermont Yankee.

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But while three reactors at Fukushima ultimately melted down, what struck home was the fact that the reactors were of identical design — they were all General Electric boiling water reactor with a Mark 1 containment design.

Demonstrations in Vermont followed, and culminated on the 40th anniversary of Yankee's original license when more than 1,200 people marched from downtown Brattleboro to the Entergy corporate headquarters on Rope Ferry Road, with about 160 people getting arrested in an act of what they called civil disobedience — trespassing at the front door.

The stage had been set by the tritium leak, which was more newsworthy because Entergy Nuclear Vice President Jay Thayer had earlier assured the now-Public Utility Commission repeatedly that there weren't any underground pipes that could leak radioactive materials, as had happened at other reactors. Turned out Thayer's statement was wrong, and the resulting furor in the Legislature set up the pivotal 26-4 Senate vote in February 2010, where the Senate voted against the continued operation of Vermont Yankee beyond its original license and renewing its state certificate of public good. The issues raised were only resolved in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City in 2013.

The radioactive tritium leak, and the discovery of other radioactive contamination, coupled with the highly publicized collapse of a portion of the plant's west bank of cooling towers in 2007, had undermined public confidence and trust in Entergy, both with the business-friendly Douglas administration, and then the more anti-nuclear administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin, a Putney Democrat, had run for election on a platform that was decidedly anti-nuclear.

But Lynch said that despite all the political "sturm und drang," it was economics that doomed Yankee and its jobs, since at the time of its closure very little of Yankee's megawatts were used by Vermont customers.

Entergy Nuclear announced that it would need $1.2 billion to demolish and clean up Vermont Yankee, and it said the decommissioning trust fund had only about half that amount, and thus the plant would have to be put into cold storage for about 50 years, before the Vernon site could be cleaned up and its debris trucked to a radioactive waste facility in west Texas.

About two years after the December 2014 permanent shut down, a new player on the decommissioning stage, NorthStar Holding Co., announced it wanted to buy Vermont Yankee from Entergy, and announced it could demolish it and clean up the radioactive contamination for about half of what Entergy said it needed.

NorthStar's offer was welcome news to the region and the town of Vernon, since the idea of an old, dilapidated nuclear power plant - even with its highly radioactive fuel safely stored nearby in large steel and concrete canisters - was not popular.

Ultimately, NorthStar, a New York City industrial demolition company which had never demolished a commercial nuclear reactor before, gained the approval of both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Utility Commission, after both NorthStar and Entergy made some additional financial guarantees to the project.

The sale was concluded — only $1,000 actually changed changes — and the now $500 million trust fund was transferred to NorthStar's financial books, and decommissioning began in earnest.

By the summer, the plant's once-troubled cooling towers were no more.

Instead of 60 years, NorthStar hopes to have Yankee demolished by 2024, and eventually the former Williams dairy farm transferred to the town of Vernon as a future site for economic development.

At the end of the year — and the decade — Entergy Nuclear was tying up loose ends of its ties to Vernon and Vermont. It gave the historic Gov. Hunt House, once its training center, to Friends of Vernon Center, a non-profit group, and made plans to sell its former corporate headquarters in North Brattleboro.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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