The Vermont Yankee (VY) nuclear power plant has been met with local resistance since its opening in 1972 by Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation, which increased significantly towards the end of its tenure. In 2012, VY’s 40-year license was set to expire. Just prior to this in August 2007, one of the towers that cooled non-radioactive water prior to releasing it into the Connecticut River collapsed due to rotting lumber and corroded bolts, spewing thousands of gallons of water from a pipe nearly 6 feet into the air. The event caused a public outcry about the reliability of the power station, and governor Jim Douglas appointed a panel to oversee independent review of the plant. Concurrently, activists engaged in direct action with legislators in order to pass Act 160, which would permit the legislature to determine whether Vermont Yankee should or should not be relicensed. Vermonters, in turn became galvanized behind a grassroots campaign to produce this shift in the legislature. January 2009 and 2010, activists walked 126 miles from Brattleboro to Montpellier Vermont in an effort to support Vermont legislators in their vote to reject Vermont Yankee’s future operations. Also in 2009, Vermont’s oversight panel discovered radioactive contamination in underground pipes, a discovery that directly contradicted the statements of VY’s vice president about the same pipes, enhancing distrust amongst community members and the state government. In January 2010, tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen was discovered in the ground water at a concentration of 20,000 picocuries of tritium per liter, which is the Environmental Protection Agency’s stated limit for drinking water. In February 2010, a monitoring well on the plant’s reactor site was dug, finding 775,000 picocuries per liter or 37 times the federal limit, leaking from an off-steam pipe.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) must make the decision as to whether or not a reactor is safe to operate. Yet, the state of Vermont has the right to reject its operation based on economic, environmental, and public choice issues. The Vermont state legislature voted down the renewal of VY’s 40-year contract. Despite the state’s decision, the NRC extended license for 20 more years, a ruling made one day following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011. In August 2011, six women ranging from 60 to 90 years old chained themselves to the entrance of VT Yankee in protest of the extension of the plant’s contract, prior to being arrested and fined by the judge for their acts. Activism continued on the part of Vermont community members, but in January 19, 2012, Entergy won a court case invalidating the state’s legal authority over plant operations. Judge Garvan Murtha of the United States District Court in Brattleboro ruled that the state could not force VY to close its operations based on the safety concerns that were exclusively the jurisdiction of the NRC. This effectively struck down the Act 160.
Vermont appealed the decision to the 2nd Circuit Appellate Court, where it was determined that the State did indeed hold the power to reject VY’s request through the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB). When Entergy bought the Vermont plant in 2002, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the state agreeing that it would need a ‘certificate of public good’ (CPB) from the PSB as well as the federal license in order to operate after the license expired in March 21, 2012. In March 2012, over a thousand protesters descended upon the Vermont Yankee corporate headquarters in Brattleboro, Vermont, where more than 130 were arrested, including a 93-year-old woman. In November 2012, numerous organizations held a march in Montpelier, VT insisting that the state refuse to grant VY the certificate of public good, the last attempt at using the state-designed legislation to protect the common good. The state’s PSB was given a deadline of June 11th 2013 to issue the CPB. However, on August 8, 2013 Entergy announced that it would cease operation due to economic factors including the competitive price of natural gas. While the company refused to admit that political forces were an impetus for its decision, many commentators stated otherwise. According to safeenergy.org, “Entergy could have tried to keep VY running, but it would have faced continual and expensive challenges in the courts, the legislature and the streets. Add those pains to the reality that the reactor couldn’t generate electricity competitively in the present marketplace, and Entergy’s decision was easy.” On December 29, 2014 VY ceased operations.
What remains to be decided is the how the plant will go about decommissioning, a process that was schedule to take place over the course of a decade and cost approximately $1.2 billion. On November 8, 2016, Entergy announced an agreement to sell Vermont Yankee and transfer the NRC licenses to subsidiaries of NorthStar Group Services, Inc. stated as a method to accelerate the processes of decommissioning and site restoration including the transfer of all spent nuclear fuel to dry cask storage at the VY site from 2020 to 2018. Since the waste is going nowhere quickly, the executive director of NukeBusters stated that it would be important to harden the casks to protect the community and deter acts of malice. Waste Control Specialists would be one contractor for the proposed accelerated decommissioning project. This company owns a nuclear waste dump and manages another state-owned dump in what has been called the ‘nuclear corridor,’ along the Texas New Mexico border. Another site proposed by the US government is Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, a site that has potential for seismic activity, but due to low levels of population weaker political will to stop the transport of nuclear waste from the East to Western United States. Action has already begun to expedite the removal process including the U.S. Department of Energy have surveyed rail lines in Vermont for suitability of nuclear waste transport. The Vermont-run Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel is concurrently discussing the process of storing VT Yankees spent nuclear fuel, which the Vermont Digger (May 12, 2017) reported will be stored in sealed casks by the end of 2018, a $143 million project. Yet, a debate has begun; locals in the community are split about whether fuel should remain in the current facility onsite or be transported to a yet-to-be-determined storage facility. “It looks attractive to a lot of people who just want to get the waste out of their community. The problem is, it’s going to go someplace,” said Chris Williams of the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network. Deb Katz, stated that, “a scientifically sound and environmentally just solution is needed; reactor and targeted waste communities need to work together to advocate for a just transition for this toxic waste” (personal communication 19 May 2017). The Trump Administration’s congressional budget request from March 2017 includes ‘$120 million to restart licensing activities for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and initiate a robust interim storage program." (Brattleboro Reformer, May 5, 2017). Two radioactive waste seminars were held for the public in Brattleboro, VT on Sat. May 13th, 2017.