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Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant: Shut It Down!

VNRC Opinion in the Montpelier Bridge

December 4, 2008

The Legislature ought to vote to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. The drawbacks of continuing to operate the plant now far outweigh any possible benefits of keeping it running into the coming decades.

The debate over Vermont Yankee will become more heated and reach a crescendo in the coming months as the Legislature debates whether to relicense the aging plant.

Because Vermont Yankee is relicensed only every 20 years, this is a crucial moment for Vermont. We stand at a crossroads. By relicensing Yankee, we embark on a route that is fraught with uncertainty and danger. It is a route that is fundamentally flawed as we face an energy hungry world because this option the continued operation of Yankee is premised on the use of a non-renewable resource, uranium. This is the route that entangles Vermont in the big, the out-of-state, the global, the old.

The other, better energy path has efficiency at its core. It’s an approach that is local and renewable and independent. It’s a path of the new, the innovative, and the secure. It’s a path that is imbued with Vermont values. It is the route, in today’s energy climate, that we must choose whenever such a clear opportunity to do so arises.

This debate represents a grand opportunity. It is an opportunity for Vermont to choose a modern, sustainable and clean energy path and reject an outdated and dangerous one. The sooner we shut the plant, the sooner Vermont will move toward a more efficient and cleaner energy future. It’s that simple.

Some would argue that we must relicense Vermont Yankee because we don’t have replacement power.

That assertion is simply untrue.

Vermont could easily shut down Yankee and keep the lights on. (In fact it happens whenever the plant is shut down for maintenance). Vermont would simply tap into energy supplies that exist in the region as we do during Yankee’s shutdown periods, until we secure new, efficient, renewable and local options.

In many ways, Vermont Yankee has represented for years now an illusion in which we all want to believe. Who can blame us? It is an illusion of endless power, of low-cost power, of “green” power. The unfortunate truth is that Vermont Yankee, when you scratch below the surface, is none of these things. Vermont Yankee will, some day, simply wear out and die, so the power is not endless. The cost of the power? Probably incalculable. How do you begin to attach a cost to the radioactive waste that is now accumulating, with no plan for a permanent disposal, on the banks of the Connecticut River? And green? Uranium mining and processing literally destroys the earth as much of it is blasted from open-pit mines. The mining and processing emits global warming gases, as well.

So far, having the plant supply power to Vermont has enabled us all to avoid the tough decision of doing what we know we have to do. It has served a useful purpose, but its time has come. To continue operation will serve only to delay a move toward a smarter, sustainable, 21st century energy system in Vermont.

If the state relicenses Vermont Yankee, it will only put off for another decade or more an inevitable shift. As most of us know from experience, putting off the inevitable rarely saves money in the long term and very often narrows, rather than expands, the number of options for the future.

Many Vermonters, including those of us at the Vermont Natural Resources Council, contend that closing Vermont Yankee is the necessary catalyst to spur much-needed investments in conservation, efficiency and an independent, renewable clean energy future. As a state, we have known, since it began operating in 1972, that Vermont Yankee would eventually close. Yet in that time, the state has done virtually nothing to develop a plan for a smooth transition to a smarter, modern, renewable energy future.

The danger now is that if we don’t seize the opportunity to make that transition now, we will be back in the same position in 20 years. What will our options be then? One thing we do know is that we will leave our children with more nuclear waste. And, as we are forced to wean ourselves from the cheap, non-renewable fuels that built the industrialized society we live in today, yes, there will be higher costs.

Today, the opportunities for replacing the power generated at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant are real and they are more vital and possible now, more than ever. There is a growing desire among Vermonters to finally grab firm control over our energy future. Growing numbers of town energy committees are working at the grassroots level to develop renewable energy projects and innovative efficiency measures. More and more Vermont communities are clamoring for wind, hydro, solar, and combined heat and power biomass projects. But to meet the growing interest in clean energy, the state must lead in helping to bring carefully sited and crafted larger-scale renewable projects online while simultaneously helping to spur smaller-scale, distributed energy generation.

We are Vermonters. We are forward-thinking. We are, by disposition and tradition, conservation-minded. We can do much better than giving Vermont Yankee a pass. We must seize the moment.

By Jake Brown