About This Interview
One of the country’s oldest and most controversial nuclear plants has announced it will close late next year. Citing financial reasons, the nuclear plant operator Entergy said Tuesday it will decommission the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station in Vernon, Vermont. The site has been the target of protests for decades and has had a series of radioactive tritium leaks. In 2010, the Vermont State Senate voted against a measure that would have authorized a state board to grant Vermont Yankee a permit to operate for an additional 20 years. Its closure leaves the United States with 99 operating nuclear reactors, and our guest, former nuclear executive Arnie Gundersen, says he expects more to follow in the aftermath of Japan’s ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. "These small single-unit nuclear plants — especially the ones that are like Fukushima Daiichi — are prone to more closures in the future because it just makes no economic sense to run an aging nuclear plant that’s almost 43 years old, and to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more to meet the modifications related to Fukushima," Gundersen says.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: One of the country’s oldest and most controversial nuclear plants has announced it will close late next year. On Tuesday, the nuclear plant operator Entergy said it plans to decommission the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station in Vernon, Vermont. The site has been the target of protests for decades and has had a series of radioactive tritium leaks. In 2010, the Vermont Senate voted against a measure that would have authorized a state board to grant Vermont Yankee a permit to operate for an additional 20 years. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin welcomed news of Vermont Yankee’s decision to close. This is Governor Shumlin speaking to Vermont Public Radio on Tuesday.
GOV. PETER SHUMLIN: They’re not economically viable. You know, I spoke with both Bill Mohl, who’s the president of Entergy Nuclear, and the new CEO, Leo Denault, of Entergy Louisiana, and, you know, they’ve made the right decision. They’ve made the right decision for Vermont. They’ve made the right decision for Entergy. And what I said to them in those conversations was that, you know, we’ve obviously had very strong disagreements in the past about the future of the plant, but our job now is to work together with Entergy, with the other governors that are impacted by this. I also spoke this morning with Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and with Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Let’s remember that of the 650 hard-working employees in Vernon, roughly 35 percent live in the state of Vermont, and the rest live in either—most of them live in either New Hampshire or Massachusetts. And we’re going to all pledge to work together to get our rapid response teams into the plant immediately—Entergy has invited us to do that—from all three states and find a good economic future for the hard-working employees. That’s whom my heart goes out to, and I know the rest of Vermonters join me.
AMY GOODMAN: The Vermont Yankee plant has been the site of scores of anti-nuclear protests since its opening in 1972. The closure leaves the United States with 99 operating reactors.
For more, we go to Arnie Gundersen, former nuclear industry executive, who has coordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country. He provides independent testimony on nuclear and radiation issues to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC, congressional and state legislatures, and government agencies and officials in the U.S. and abroad. He’s chief engineer at Fairewinds Associates.
Arnie Gundersen, welcome to Democracy Now! This is a tremendous victory, well, for the governor himself, who actually as a state legislator was opposed to the nuclear plant in his own district, as well as the thousands of people who have been protesting this nuclear power plant. Can you talk about the significance, how this was finally shut down?
ARNIE GUNDERSEN: You know, it certainly is a victory for the Legislature in Vermont. You’ll remember that vote back in 2010 was 26 to four. It was pretty darn near unanimous to shut the plant down. Now, it took three years, but it was citizen pressure that got the state Senate to such a position, so my hat’s off to the citizens of Vermont for applying pressure to the Legislature for years, that culminated in this 26-to-4 vote.
The straw that broke the camel’s back is economics. You know, five nuclear plants have been shut down this year. We came into the year with 104, and now we’re at 99, and the year isn’t even over yet. These small single-unit nuclear plants, especially the ones that are like Fukushima Daiichi, are prone to more closures in the future, because it just makes no economic sense to run an aging nuclear plant that’s almost 43 years old and to invest hundreds of millions of dollars more to meet the modifications related to Fukushima Daiichi.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So you think that the closure of Vermont Yankee might lead to subsequent closures of the 99 remaining plants?
ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Well, there’s a paper out by Dr. Mark Cooper at the Vermont Law School, and he predicts that as many as 30 nuclear plants are on the cusp of shutting down because of economic considerations. You know, a nuclear plant has 650 employees, as Governor Shumlin said, but the real comparison is against a comparable plant. A comparable plant of a fossil plant would have a hundred people. So the cost to keep a nuclear plant running is extraordinarily high. The nuclear fuel is not as expensive as coal or gas, but, in comparison, all the other costs are extraordinarily high. So there’s a lot of downward pressure on plants like Pilgrim, plants like Hope Creek and those in New Jersey that—Oyster Creek, that was hit by Sandy just six months ago. There’s a lot of cost pressures that likely will shut down, you know, another dozen nuclear plants before—before this all shakes out.
AMY GOODMAN: Arnie Gundersen, before we move on to Japan, I wanted to ask you about not—this not only being a victory for the people who have been opposed to nuclear power in Vermont, but a real defeat for Entergy and what it tried to do, how it tried to circumvent the people’s will, the Vermont Legislature. Can you explain what it was doing and why the court was so significant in this?
ARNIE GUNDERSEN: Well, after the Legislature voted to—not to grant a license to continue until after 2012, Entergy had promised to reapply for a license to continue for the next 20 years. The Legislature, in that 26-to-4 vote, said, "No, we’re not going to allow you to reapply. It’s over. You know, a deal’s a deal. We had a 40-year deal." Well, Entergy went to first the federal court here in Vermont and won, and then went to an appeals court in New York City and won again on the right—on the issue, as they framed it, that states have no authority to regulate safety. And they successfully argued that. But the position of the state was never about safety. You know, I was involved in the evaluations back in '09 and 2010, and when we found safety problems on the panel that I was on, we immediately notified the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Our goal was to look at the cost of Vermont Yankee and the reliability of Vermont Yankee as an aging plant. That got muddled up in the legal arguments, and Entergy prevailed. But I think by closing the plant, you know, ultimately Vermont prevailed anyway. It's likely that that won’t get appealed to the Supreme Court, because when Entergy pulled the plug, the entire legal process has been mooted.