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Vermont Stands Alone

Hi ho, the derry-o: the obsessions of a single-party state

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The plant was originally owned by a consortium of New England utilities. In 2002, it was bought by Entergy, a Louisiana-based energy conglomerate that was expanding its holdings in nuclear power and had purchased the much larger Indian Point plants in New York two years before. The Vermont Yankee deal—brokered by Howard Dean’s administration—included an understanding that Entergy would increase the output of the plant by some 20 percent and apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license extension so as to continue operating for another 20 years after the original license was due to expire in March 2012.

“In your dreams,” swore the antinuclear forces. They understood that if they had a chance of shutting down a nuclear plant anywhere, Vermont was that place. Vermont, where the commune movement took root and flourished in the 1960s and ’70s and where commune-reared children were now voters. Vermont, where at town meetings in 1981, once business like the amount of road salt to lay in for winter was dispensed with, 14 towns voted for a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Vermont was the place; Yankee was the plant.

The first years of Entergy’s ownership were relatively calm. Protesters would occasionally picket the company’s state headquarters or the plant and sometimes get themselves arrested for trespassing. They would pack information hearings and town meetings to shout down speakers. They would send letters to the editor, describing how they lived in fear of a Chernobyl on the Connecticut, and the state’s newspapers routinely published them.

Not long after Entergy acquired Vermont Yankee, it faced a crisis not of its own making. The plant was running out of space in the pool where it stored spent fuel. With a proposed federal storage facility in Nevada on hold, Vermont Yankee adopted a plan to encase its spent fuel in cylinders of steel and concrete called “dry casks” and store them above ground, on a concrete pad. The antinuke forces were of course opposed, and in 2004 they pressured the legislature in Montpelier into ruling that before there could be storage in dry casks Entergy must agree to make regular payments into a fund to subsidize renewable energy projects. Those payments have, at this time, amounted to some $20 million. Peter Welch was the leader of the Vermont senate at the time and instrumental in brokering this “deal.” People at Entergy had another word for it.

Meanwhile, they continued to improve and upgrade the plant as part of their plan to increase output by 20 percent. There had never been any secret about this, but the antis were opposed on the ground that it would stress the “aging” plant and lead to an accident. 

Still, after many protests and dire warnings of catastrophe, the plant increased its power output and continued to supply about one-third of Vermont’s baseload electricity at a rate that was the lowest in New England. At this point, just about everyone assumed the antis had been marginalized and Yankee would be given permission by the federal and state authorities to operate for another 20 years. Until one day in the summer of 2007 when a cooling tower collapsed. 

The cooling towers at Vermont Yankee are not those hourglass shaped affairs whose silhouette has become the unofficial logo of nuclear power. In fact, at Yankee they are not “towers” at all. More like sheds. By some accounts, the shed design was adopted because, in Vermont, it might be better if a nuclear plant looked like something else.

At any rate, one of the sheds collapsed, spilling several thousand gallons of warm water on the ground. No radiation was released. The accident was the equivalent of a broken water pump or radiator in a car, not a cracked block. The plant continued to operate at 50 percent capacity briefly and was back at full production in a few weeks.

But the photographs were dramatic, and the headlines were scary, and the opponents of nuclear power used them to maximum effect. This was the beginning of the turning of the tide of opinion about Vermont Yankee.

Other misfortunes followed. Tritium was found leaking from the plant, though in quantities that could not be detected in the Connecticut River. At hearings into the leak, an Entergy vice president answered a question in a fashion that some claimed was intentionally misleading. The attorney general launched a criminal investigation that lasted more than a year and at the end of which, on July 6, he announced that no charges would be filed. This being Vermont, he could not resist taking a shot at Entergy in a statement that accused its executives of having “repeatedly failed to meet a minimally acceptable standard of credibility and trustworthiness.” 

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