Right to the Point (3/11/10)

Life after Vermont Yankee

March 11, 2010

By Mike Benevento

Last month, the Vermont Senate overwhelmingly voted to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. Following their cohorts’ lead, the House is considering a similar vote to decline the plant’s re-licensing in 2012.

Recently, leaking radioactive tritium and misleading information from Entergy Corp. raised doubts about the plant’s safety and management. Even still, questions about corporate restructuring, decommissioning funds and the cost of power were reasons Senate President Peter Shumlin gave for not supporting the plant’s further operation — not safety.

Closing Vermont Yankee is yet another nail in the coffin for the private sector in Vermont. By shutting the reactor down, legislators risk long-term damage to the state’s economy. Losing 650 good-paying jobs at the plant will hurt — especially in southern Vermont where employment is scarce. The job losses will also negatively affect Vermont’s tax revenue, resulting in the state providing less service for its inhabitants.

One thing is for sure: Vermont life will become more expensive. Your electric bill will increase significantly. Higher utility rates will handicap businesses, which will pass along the added costs to consumers. The impact on IBM and other power-intensive Vermont companies may be the final straw that chases them out of state.

Eventually, Montpelier’s legislators must develop a plan to keep the lights on throughout Vermont for a reasonable price. Yankee’s license expires in two years. In the meantime, lawmakers need to find other energy resources. Because Vermont Yankee currently supplies approximately one-third of the electricity the state consumes, replacing its contribution may prove difficult.

The Senate wouldn’t have made the move to shutter the reactor without forethought, right? Since it pulled the plug on Vermont Yankee, what are the Legislature’s solutions to replacing a third of our electricity? Vermonters need to know now, since families and businesses only have two short years to prepare for the transition.

The fact of the matter is that reliable and cost-effective nuclear power has quietly powered the state’s environmental success since the early 1970s. Nuclear energy allows Vermont’s carbon footprint to be the nation’s smallest.

John McClaughry, vice president of the nonpartisan Ethan Allen Institute, wrote, “By late 2012 the cheapest and most reliable third of Vermont’s electricity will disappear. There is zero possibility that it can be replaced by any believable combination of conservation, wind turbines, solar panels, cow power, and landfill methane.”

Reduced consumption, increasing energy efficiencies and energy conservation will be part of the solution. Wind, solar and methane will help, but they cannot come close to replacing Yankee’s energy production. Additionally, wind and solar sources provide electricity at many times the cost of nuclear power — making them difficult to implement in hard financial times.

McClaughry wrote, “We might be able to double the power purchased from Hydro-Québec — if its management has forgiven Vermont for its ill-advised lawsuit aimed at breaking its supply contract after the ice storm of 1998. But that would leave Vermont with 2/3 of its power from a single supplier, not a good idea.”

According to McClaughry, most likely Vermont will ask the New England electric grid operator to send the energy we need from wherever they can find it — mainly coal burning plants — an expensive proposition.

In a serious blow to controlling global warming, McClaughry notes that closing the plant will defeat our self-imposed goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions back to 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2028. Without Vermont Yankee, more fossil fuels including coal, oil and natural gas will be burned — none of which are as clean as nuclear energy.

There is little doubt that existing solutions inadequately offset the electricity lost by closing Vermont Yankee. While solar, wind and hydropower help, I am convinced the best long-term solution to Vermont’s energy needs is nuclear. Thus, I recommend keeping Vermont Yankee running while building a new nuclear power plant at the Vernon site. I am not alone.

Ironically, nuclear power advocates have a new ally. To help create clean energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil, earlier this year President Barack Obama proposed America start constructing new nuclear power plants.

With this in mind, 34 Republican legislators introduced Joint Resolution H. 41. The bill calls for the Legislature to start planning for a new nuclear power plant at the Vernon site to replace Vermont Yankee.

The legislation was referred to the committee on Natural Resources and Energy last month. While alternative energy sources may replace a portion of Yankee’s lost power, only a nuclear power plant can replace all of it. J.R.H. 41 may be our state’s best hope.


Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.