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Editorial: Vermont Yankee soon closed, but not forgotten

In this June 19, 2013 photo, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station sits along the banks of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vt. Entergy Corp., announced Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, it will shut down the nuclear power plant by end of 2014, ending a long legal battle with the state. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

In this June 19, 2013 photo, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station sits along the banks of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vt. Entergy Corp., announced Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, it will shut down the nuclear power plant by end of 2014, ending a long legal battle with the state. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot) Purchase photo reprints »

The fight to close the aging and unsafe Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shifts now to a cleanup that could last longer than the 41 years the plant has generated electricity.

The surprise many felt Tuesday over news that Entergy Corp. of Louisiana will take the plant off-line for good late next year, when its fuel runs low, may be turning to shock at the enormity of the environmental challenge posed by decommissioning.

Raymond Shadis, technical adviser to the New England Coalition, observed Tuesday that his group and other environmental and public safety advocates must remain involved with the fate of Vermont Yankee. That’s because by next year the plant will no longer be a money-maker for Entergy, but a liability, impure and simple. “Just a nuclear waste pile ... from which the public and the environment need to be protected,” Shadis said Tuesday.

The company plans to move the reactor into the “safe store” status outlined by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. By one estimate, it could take 70 years for levels of radiation to subside to levels safe enough to dismantle the structure.

Spent nuclear fuel will be entombed in concrete casks on the site because the nation has no waste storage system for this industry, a problem that has dogged its prospects for decades. A Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund holds nearly half a billion dollars, but even that is expected to fall well short of the costs of safeguarding the public from the residue of its operations.

Plant opponents long argued that Entergy, which bought Vermont Yankee for $180 million in 2002, could not operate it safely. Strong evidence of that came in early 2010, when it was learned that radioactive tritium had been leaking into the ground at the plant from pipes that Entergy officials had repeatedly insisted, in testimony to Vermont regulators in 2009, did not exist. Two years before that, a cooling tower partially collapsed, raising worries about the overall integrity of the facility.

Even as it faced huge costs, including a $150 million expense to replace a 40-year-old steam condenser, Entergy spent heavily on its legal battles with the state of Vermont to protect its viability. It had won many of them, particularly a U.S. District Court case in which Judge J. Garvan Murtha decided last year that only the federal government, not Vermont, held the authority to compel the plant to close. The month before, the NRC awarded it a new 20-year license. Things seemed to be going the company’s way. But the rise of relatively cheap natural gas proved a big competitor.

And, significantly, the state of Vermont kept the pressure on. And in the end, though Entergy’s chairman and CEO said Tuesday a changing energy market forced “an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call,” the state of Vermont’s sustained campaign to hold Entergy accountable for environmental hazards must have figured in as well.

Residents of the Valley who live in the evacuation zone, or downwind and downriver, owe a debt of gratitude to Vermont officials who took unpopular stands related to Vermont Yankee. The closing will cost southern Vermont more than 600 jobs — a workforce that will likely never be replicated, even through investments in renewable energy. Hundreds of plant employees live in Massachusetts, whose border is but five miles from the plant.

Though most people reading this will not be alive to see the cleanup be completed, the plant’s closing next year means the Connecticut River will no longer receive millions of gallons of heated water — a form of thermal pollution that degrades habitats and endangers fish populations.

Despite that immediate gain, the call to activism will continue to sound. There is little doubt that Valley residents who have protested the plant’s operation virtually since its opening in 1972 will remain vigilant.

They deserve credit for putting environmental ideals and the public’s well-being ahead of their own interests.

Officials are already promising to press the NRC to see that the Vermont Yankee decommissioning moves along as quickly as possible and that, in time, the hazards it posed to human health fade away.

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