Vermont Yankee opponents in Valley surprised, pleased by shutdown announcement

Last modified: Sunday, September 01, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Anti-nuclear power advocates were rejoicing across the Connecticut River Valley Tuesday after learning Entergy Corp. plans to close the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station by the end of 2014.

For those who protested the plant’s operation for years, the company’s sudden announcement came as a surprise and was hailed as a victory in their quest to shut down one of the region’s largest nuclear power plants.

“This plant has been a danger to the community since it opened,” said Dr. Ira Helfand of Northampton, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. “The danger has increased since the plant has aged. It can’t close soon enough.”

Vermont Yankee, which opened for commercial use in 1972 and has a maximum 600-megawatt capacity, has been reviled by anti-nuclear groups for years, most notably for the public and environmental health threats they say it poses.

“It’s very dangerous, old-fashioned technology,” said Helfand, who traveled to Japan last year and spoke with victims of the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, which remains an ongoing disaster in that country.

“When you talk to one of the victims of these accidents, it just brings it home more, somebody who has their entire community turned upside down,” he said. “It really underscores on an emotional level, the extent of the dangers these plants pose.”

Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network, a regional anti-nuclear group that has campaigned for years to shut down Vermont Yankee power plant, described Entergy’s announcement as a “win for the people. ... We knew they were going to close, the question was when they were going to pull the plug,” said Katz, of Rowe.

Entergy cited a number of financial factors as reasons for its planned shutdown, including lower natural gas prices resulting, in part, from increasing production of shale gas, as well as the high costs to operate the plant. Since 2002, the company says it has invested $400 million in Vernon.

Katz said public pressure to close the plant, and a lack of support from Vermont’s political leadership, undoubtedly played a role. “People can prevail. It can happen,” Katz said. “They have to persevere.”

Priscilla Lynch of Conway and Paki Wieland of Northampton were among those arrested a year ago as they blocked gates to the plant as part of an action by the Shut It Down Affinity Group. Both women said Tuesday that while the plant will soon close, they remain concerned about long-term and sensitive work that remains to decommission the plant. The power station is to remain under the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission throughout the decommissioning process. “Our being in jeopardy has not passed,” said Wieland. “We were never really ever able to hold that nuclear power plant accountable. We really need them (the NRC) to do that job.”

Wieland said Entergy’s decision came as a surprise and speaks to the economic woes of nuclear power, which generated 31 percent of New England’s electricity in 2012, according to ISO New England in Holyoke, which operates the region’s high-voltage power grid and wholesale electricity markets.

In a statement Tuesday, ISO New England said a study in 2012 showed the regional power grid could be operated reliably without Vermont Yankee, though it planned to update that review with Entergy’s formal request to retire the plant.

“Although the ISO ... does not favor any fuel or technology, the retirement of this large nuclear station will result in less fuel diversity and greater dependence on natural gas as a fuel for power generation,” said the company, which has identified the issue as a key strategic risk for the region. In addition, lower natural gas prices associated with increased production of shale gas have created economic forces that are pushing older, fossil-fuel generators towards retirement, “which will only increase the region’s dependence on natural gas,” according to the company.

In Vermont, the loss of jobs at Vermont Yankee is a big concern, though many state residents are pleased with Entergy’s decision, said Vermont State Rep. David L. Deen, D-Westminster, who is also steward of the upper valley of the Connecticut River Watershed Council. The plant employs about 630 people and will likely retain a percentage of its workforce not only for its continuing operation, but through decommissioning.

“They’ve got a long way to go before there are no people at all at the plant,” Deen said.

Entergy lamented the job losses in a statement Tuesday and said it expects to see charges of approximately $55 million to $60 million associated with future severance and employee retention costs through the end of next year.

“Vermont Yankee has an immensely talented, dedicated and loyal workforce, and a solid base of support among many in the community,” Leo Denault, Entergy’s chairman and chief executive officer said in a statement. “We recognize that closing the plant on this schedule was not the outcome they had hoped for, but we have reluctantly concluded that it is the appropriate action for us to take under the circumstances.”

The Connecticut River Watershed Council has been fighting for 15 years to get Vermont Yankee to stop its thermal discharge into the Connecticut River. With news of Entergy’s shutdown next year, Deen said he hopes both the state’s Public Service Board and Agency of Natural Resources, which are reviewing conditions for new discharge permits for the plant, call for a closed-circuit cooling discharge at Vermont Yankee during its remaining life. “We’ve presented the board with a lot of evidence that all is not well in terms of the river, in terms of their thermal discharge,” Deen said.

Under expired permitting, which it still operates under, Vermont Yankee can discharge up to 543 million gallons a day, up to 105 degrees, Deen noted. “Nature is sensitive. When you have an input like that, in the summer months, you can affect the health of aquatic life in the river.”

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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