BRATTLEBORO—In 2006, when Entergy Nuclear applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a 20-year license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, it seemed like a slam dunk.
The NRC had never rejected a license extension, and then-Gov. Jim Douglas and his administration were solidly behind the extension, as was most of the Vermont Legislature. The business community was in Entergy’s corner, as were the state’s electric utilities.
But over the past seven years, what seemed like an inevitability — that Vermont Yankee would operate past the expiration of its original 40-year license — turned into something else altogether.
Entergy did get its license extension from the NRC in 2011, but news of the extension came amid the unfolding nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
The NRC extension came after the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 in 2010 to direct the Vermont Public Service Board not to extend the plant’s Certificate of Public Good.
And it came after a series of mishaps large and small – from a cooling tower collapse in 2007 to a transformer fire — that slowly but steadily turned public opinion in Vermont against the plant.
On Tuesday, when Entergy announced it was shuttering VY, friends and foes alike were quick to focus on making sure the plant was safely closed, and its more than 600 workers are taken care of in the transition to closure.
“This is the right decision for Vermont and it’s the right decision for Vermont’s clean-energy future,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who as Senate president in 2010, led the vote against VY continued operation.
Shumlin said he would work with the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire to see what can be done for the workers at VY.
“The VY site would be ideal for future energy production,” Shumlin said Tuesday in an interview with WTSA Radio. “But the key will be quickly decommissioning the plant.”
Vermont’s Congressional delegation welcomed the news that the plant was closing, but urged the NRC to reject Entergy’s plan to mothball the plant for up to 60 years before dismantling it.
“Safe decommissioning of Vermont Yankee is an issue of enormous and overarching importance for Vermont,” said Sen Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “Every precaution must be taken to insure public and worker safety during the decommissioning, and to insure that we do not leave a public safety nightmare for future generations of Vermonters.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., agreed, adding that the jobs of Vermont Yankee employees must be preserved while the plant is safely decommissioned.
“Entergy must go through a decommissioning process as soon as possible, a process which will require many workers,” Sanders said. “Clearly there are no people who know the Vermont Yankee plant better than those who are currently employed [there], and they should be given top priority for those new jobs.”
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the closure “provides a potential opportunity as we look for ways to advance Vermont’s energy future and to find new jobs for Vermont Yankee employees.”
He said he will “work closely with the Governor and the state’s delegation to ensure the safe and swift dismantling of the plant and secure the economic vitality of the Windham County region.”
Deb Katz, executive director of the Vermont Citizens Action Network, said her group lauded Entergy’s decision to shut down the aging nuclear power plant rather than “push it past its limits.”
Katz added that plant opponents “will remain vigilant to ensure that the decommissioning is done responsibly and in the safest way possible.”
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency would “continue its rigorous oversight of the plant through the rest of its operations and into and through decommissioning. We have a decommissioning process that details steps that would have to be taken by Entergy going forward.”
Ray Shadis, technical advisor for The New England Coalition, a longtime VY opponent, said Tuesday that “environmental and public safety advocates and regulators must stay on their toes at this most crucial time.”
“One fundamental purpose of our advocacy has always been to try to protect the public and the environment from nuclear waste: waste in the fuel, in the reactor, in the pool, out in the yard, soon to be released in the next reactor or fuel handling accident, and out on the wind,” Shadis continued.
Shadis called Tuesday’s announcement by Entergy “a real milestone to getting Vermont and the region off of the poison-power path, but our work is just beginning.”
Tim Stevenson, founding director of Post Oil Solutions, said he hopes that “one of the great unintended, but welcome results of this news might be that it will free up the energy and time of all the wonderful people who have been working to close down VY to now focus their attention on what is truly the issue of our times: climate change.”
He said that the glut of natural gas on U.S. markets that has driven down prices — something that Entergy said played a factor in the decision to close VY — will be short-lived.
Stevenson said some studies conclude that there’s only a 20 to 30 year reserve of natural gas in the United States. If so, the nation will find itself within a couple of decades again facing a gas shortage, but with an increasingly polluted environment and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.
ISO New England, operators of the region’s electric grid and wholesale electric market, warned Tuesday that while VY’s closure will not have an adverse affect on the reliability of the grid, it would “result in less fuel diversity and greater dependence on natural gas as a fuel for power generation.”
ISO said that natural gas generated about 52 percent of New England’s energy last year, and lower gas prices “have resulted in lower electricity prices and less revenue for resources in the energy market, while excess supply has dampened prices in the capacity market.”
ISO added this, in turn, is “pushing other older, fossil-fuel-fired generators toward retirement, which will only increase the region’s dependence on natural gas.”