Nuclear industry goes hysterically ballistic over Yankee shutdown

A Greenpeace blimp flies above Vermont Yankee.

A Greenpeace blimp flies in protest above Vermont Yankee.

The long-awaited shutdown of the Vermont Yankee (VY) reactor on December 29 was celebrated across New England over the weekend; I’m told the party in Greenfield, Massachusetts Saturday night was especially festive.

After decades of campaigning, especially over the past 15 years when the Nuclear Free New England campaign kicked off at an action camp near Brattleboro, VT in 1998 (the initial announcement of VY’s impending shutdown was made 15 years to the day that 21 activists were arrested at the reactor site as the culmination of that camp), as well as years of deceit and bumbling by VY’s last owner Entergy–which managed to alienate just about the entire region’s population along with nearly every political leader in Vermont–such festivities were certainly in order.

Protests against Vermont Yankee regularly drew hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people in the small state.

Protests against Vermont Yankee regularly drew hundreds, and sometimes thousands of people in the small state.

Entergy of course denied that activism and the near-unanimous public and political opposition to VY had anything to do with the shutdown, and it’s undoubtedly true that if the reactor had any hope of again turning a meaningful profit the utility would have tried harder to keep it running. But there was no hope of that, and there were plenty of steps left for the state and the public to take to force its shutdown, so Entergy decided to cut its losses.

What’s left now is a staggering $1.24 Billion estimate for decommissioning the 617 MW reactor –just a little over 1/2 the size of most U.S. reactors–and some key decisions on how best to handle that decommissioning. The activists who led the shutdown campaign plan on staying involved in those decisions. But the size of the decommissioning bill leads to renewed concern that the costs of decommissioning larger reactors–costs that will be incurred at every reactor with many sooner than a lot of nuclear utilities would like to think–will soar well beyond their ability to pay.

Entergy, for example, has only about half the needed money in its decommissioning fund (and even so still found it cheaper to close the reactor than keep it running); repeat that across the country with multiple and larger reactors and the shortfalls could be stunning. Expect heated battles in the coming years as nuclear utilities try to push the costs of the decommissioning fund shortfalls onto ratepayers.

Outside of Entergy, which kept its comments relatively low-key in comparison, the nuclear industry reacted to the shutdown with hysterical hyperbole.

Said former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg for Nuclear Matters, a group formed by Exelon a year ago to prevent such reactor shutdowns,

Signs of stress in our country’s reliable electricity grid cannot be ignored. It is simply unsustainable for the United States to continue down the path of allowing nuclear energy plants to close. Regulators, policymakers and industry must work together to ensure that nuclear energy is properly valued as a reliable, affordable and carbon-free electricity resource that is essential to America’s energy future and diverse fuel mix, and to ensure that existing nuclear plants are properly recognized in electricity markets for the value that they provide. Nuclear energy is safe, reliable, secure, and 100 percent carbon-free. This 24-7, 365 always-on source of electricity is key to our country’s success.

Added the Nuclear Energy Institute,

Closing Vermont Yankee—a valuable contributor to Vermont and the region’s energy security and environmental protection—is both frustrating and disheartening to the nuclear energy industry….

Vermont Yankee is an unfortunate and clear example of a situation that should not be replicated in other states. Other nuclear energy facilities—producing affordable electricity safely and reliably—are at risk of premature closure due to competitive electricity markets that are not working for the benefit of consumers or the long-term reliability of the electric grid. It is simply unsustainable and shortsighted to continue to shut down perfectly good energy facilities and put at risk the fundamental values of our electricity system.

Will Davis wrote on the American Nuclear Society’s website,

There are those who campaigned mightily to keep this plant open—workers, concerned citizens, experts in the field of nuclear energy—who have now seen their efforts thwarted by the plant owner having declared the plant no longer economic to continue operating. Many people are aware of the stabilizing effect on the grid that nuclear plants have, the price-controlling effect that buying nuclear fuel two years at a time has, and at no end the reliability of nuclear plants in extreme weather of all sorts. For naught? No. Those same arguments, those same reasoned explanations, all fit nuclear plants everywhere. The fight having been fought–and learned from—is far more important to our nation’s discussion of energy than might be gleaned from a wished-for future in which the fight never took place.

Meanwhile, pro-nuke activist Rod Adams, in a long plea to somebody–anybody–to keep VY open,  admitted he doesn’t even understand Entergy’s decision to close the reactor–an acknowledgement that he doesn’t understand energy economics generally either.

I’m confused by Entergy’s stubborn insistence that its decision to close the plant is driven purely by economics. Under current market rules, Vermont Yankee might not be the kind of consistent money maker that monopoly utility analysts prefer, but it is a low marginal cost producer of a vital commodity whose price occasionally spikes….

No amount of dreaming or alternative energy optimism is going to produce useful solar energy on cold, snowy, dark New England days. There are no flat plains nearby on which to install massive quantities of wind turbines. There are businesses salivating over new transmission lines or gas pipelines, but the people who live in the proposed pathways are not so excited.

But the general industry mood was perhaps best summed up by a blogger at Yes Vermont Yankee,

To say I have been miserable about Vermont Yankee going off-line is putting it mildly. People laid off, Vermont importing power from the gas plants in the states next door, opponents crowing that nuclear is just too expensive and this proves it. It’s all too much.

And, predictably, nuclear advocates like Forbes’ insufferable and consistently wrong James Conca were predicting VY’s shutdown will lead to higher electricity rates in the region.

It’s easy to knock down the industry’s self-serving arguments; almost too easy–there’s no sport to it anymore.

Economist Mark Cooper took Conca and others warning of economic disaster and skyrocketing electricity rates to task (an article perhaps Adams should read if he wants to understand nuclear economics):

Critics of the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor have forecast a 40 percent jump in New England winter heating bills as a result of the shutdown. The facts suggest they have it wrong in more ways than one.

Last year New England electricity prices were about 36 percent higher than the U.S. average. Ten years ago they were about 36 percent above the U.S. average. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) price increase projected for New England in 2015 is 3 percent (compared to a national average of 2.5 percent). Having Vermont Yankee online did not help New England achieve lower winter electricity prices and closing it won’t make an appreciable difference….

The problem with new reactor construction costs is well known, but the really stunning development is the problem that nuclear power has in terms of operating costs. Nuclear power has always touted itself as the low-cost source of electricity by emphasizing its low operating costs and downplaying its high construction costs. That sleight of hand does not work anymore. Twenty years ago, nuclear power had the lowest operating costs, so keeping them online made perfect sense. As they aged, their operating costs rose, while technological progress has lowered the operating costs of renewables. Today the operating costs of nuclear reactors, particularly old ones like Vermont Yankee, are much higher than renewable alternatives.

Indeed, VY closed because it couldn’t provide electricity at competitive rates. So how could closing it lead to higher electricity rates? If the rates were high enough, VY could have stayed open. The reality is that the reactor was uneconomic for Entergy now, and would forever remain so; the gap between rates and VY’s cost of producing electricity likely would have widened, not narrowed.

Deb Katz and the Citizens Awareness Network were among the most tireless and effective opponents against Vermont Yankee.

Deb Katz and the Citizens Awareness Network were among the most tireless and effective opponents against Vermont Yankee.

As for Adams’ insistence that solar power can’t work in Vermont, here’s a tip: solar power works everywhere. Vermont’s climate is not so different from Germany’s, where renewables are providing an ever-increasing percentage of the nation’s electricity, and will continue to grow until they provide virtually all of it.

Gregg’s insistence that nuclear power is “100% carbon-free” is somewhat surprising: even the Nuclear Energy Institute doesn’t try to make that claim anymore. It may be news to Gregg that nuclear reactors require a dirty fuel chain to produce their atomic fuel (a chain that continues through the nearly eternal requirement to keep reactors’ lethal radioactive waste from entering the environment), but it’s no longer a surprise to anyone following energy issues.

And Gregg’s argument that “This 24-7, 365 always-on source of electricity is key to our country’s success” is dead wrong. In fact, that was nuclear’s 20th century selling point–and it was relevant then. It’s not in the 21st century, when new methods of generating and distributing electricity are both in place and required.

As Cooper explains,

Because reactors are inflexible, “must run” facilities that cannot quickly increase and decrease power, they cannot respond to changes in load. They put all of the supply-side response to changes in load onto other facilities. The 20th century central station approach met peak load by burning fossil fuels, first diesel and then natural gas.

Rather than relying solely on the supply-side to meet increases in demand, the 21st century electricity system marshals a much broader range of tools. The ability to use demand response has increased dramatically with improvements in information and control technologies, particularly when it is integrated with diversified, distributed supply. The Regulatory Assistance Project, based in New England, has identified a dozen policies that can lower the peak and increase the system-wide load factor dramatically.

The industry is attempting to use VY’s “premature” shutdown as a rationale to change energy policies to favor uneconomic nuclear reactors above the growing use of cleaner, safer and cheaper renewables. That’s what’s behind their laments, their fearful (yet unrealized) predictions of higher electricity rates and lower grid reliability and their prescriptions to return to the days when nuclear was “properly valued.”

As for grid reliability, former Sierra Club head Carl Pope neatly sums up the reality that nuclear and fossil fuels are now actually less reliable than renewables.

In truth, if nuclear power were “properly valued,” every reactor would close tomorrow. There is no value in continuing with an electrical generating source that, unlike any other, can lead to catastrophic meltdown, that produces radioactive waste lethal for eons, that does not mesh with a 21st century high-tech grid, and that, increasingly, cannot compete economically with the available alternatives.

That’s the real lesson of Vermont Yankee’s shutdown. That, and the fact that the relentless persistence and dedication of the clean energy campaigners who successfully organized and mobilized to bring about that shutdown can be replicated elsewhere, is what the nuclear industry truly fears. For good reason.

Michael Mariotte

January 5, 2015


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22 thoughts on “Nuclear industry goes hysterically ballistic over Yankee shutdown

  1. Peter Sipp

    My favorite story: A brand new type of commercial ship was commissioned in 1960. The ns Savannah. She was decommissioned in 1972. The cheerleaders line is: The atomic ship was not accepted by the rest of the world. The reality: The ns Savannah could not compete. She cost too much to operate. This is a perfect example of the thinking that the atomic energy cheerleaders use to warp reality. It’s everything else is wrong. WHEW !!!!!

    1. Rod Adams (@Atomicrod)

      Peter – When the NS Savannah was decommissioned, its oil fired competitors were buying fuel for about $2-3 per barrel. One year later, they were paying four times as much for the same amount of fuel. Even with NS Savannah’s non-commercial design compromises chosen to make it an attractive demonstration project for dignitaries, her ability to compete economically would have been substantially different in 1973 than in 1972. Unfortunately, the decision to lay her up was not reversible.

      There are many reasons why commercial nuclear ships have not been built; one of the main ones is that my former employer — the US Navy — strongly discouraged its vendors from offering commercial products.

    2. Will Davis

      NS SAVANNAH was not decommissioned because she was uneconomic to operate; rather, she had completed her assigned missions (signature of agreements with other nations to allow nuclear powered commercial ships into their waters; demonstration of safe, reliable nuclear powered commercial shipping.) In 1971, the Atomic Energy Commission made the decision that the requirements for the program had been met and decided to shut down the ship and defuel the reactor to await a further decision on disposition of the ship. The experience acquired in designing and running the SAVANNAH was used to design and build the German nuclear powered ore carrier OTTO HAHN, which incorporated what we would today call an SMR (actually an integral PWR) and which operated safely for a number of years.

      Will Davis
      Communications Director, NS Savannah Association, Inc.

      1. Peter Sipp

        I read in the Sandia Nat. News that Savannah was too expensive to operate. What happened to the Otto Hahn?

    3. Will Davis

      The NS SAVANNAH was not removed from service because she was not economical to operate. The concepts for the ship’s operation included the requirements to obtain agreements with other nations under which potential future nuclear powered commercial ships could enter their waters and ports, which was accomplished, and also the demonstration of the ship in cargo and passenger service. This latter requirement was met in the extreme; after the final shutdown of the plant, the maintenance contractor, Todd Shipyard, reported that the nuclear plant on SAVANNAH had been available 99% of the time it was scheduled to be.

      In 1971, the AEC determined that the ship had met its requirements and decided to terminate the program.

      Will Davis
      Communications Director, NS Savannah Association, Inc.

  2. Peter Sipp

    For anyone not familiar with the ns Savannah: she was the first and ONLY ever commercial cargo ship. She got no tax dollars like the Navy ships do. Russia had one atomic ice breaker, one.

    1. Rod Adams (@Atomicrod)

      Peter – Russia currently operates seven nuclear powered commercial ships – 6 are icebreakers, one is a container ship with an ice breaking bow. Three additional ships were built, operated and are now inactive.

    2. Will Davis

      The NS SAVANNAH was built by the United States Maritime Administration, and was a US Government project.

      The former Soviet Union (now Russia) has had no fewer than NINE nuclear powered icebreakers over the years (Lenin, 1959; Arktika, 1975; Sibir, 1978; Rossiya, 1985; Sovietskiy Soyuz, 1989; Yamal, 1992 and the newest “50 Years of Victory” all being ocean going icebreakers while the Taimyr and Vaygach, both built in Finland, are nuclear powered inshore or river icebreakers) and has one nuclear powered commercial cargo carrying ship, the Sevmorput, which has an icebreaking bow itself. So the program for Russian icebreakers has been much larger and more extensive than just one ship.

      The present fleet includes the four newest large icebreakers (each ship two reactors, 75,000 shaft horsepower) Rossiya, Sovietskiy Soyuz, Yamal and 50 Let Pobiedy and the two inshore single reactor 40,000 shaft horsepower Taimyr and Vaygach, as well as the Sevmorput. Lenin has been preserved as a museum while Arktika and Sibir await their fate out of service.

      Will Davis
      Communications Director, NS Savannah Association, Inc.

    3. Will Davis

      The NS SAVANNAH was built at the expense of the US Government, through contracts awarded by the US AEC and the Maritime Administration.

      The Soviet Union launched its first nuclear icebreaker in 1959, the LENIN. At present Russia (who inherited the fleet) is operating four large two-reactor 75,000 HP icebreakers and two smaller single-reactor “inshore” icebreakers, as well as the SEVMORPUT which is a nuclear powered, icebreaking container ship. Further, a total of three nuclear icebreakers have operated but been removed from service due to age (including the LENIN.) The LENIN is preserved as a museum, while the other two await their fates.

      On order and under construction now is a nuclear powered icebreaker for Russia that will be larger and more powerful than those it has operated in the past.

      Will Davis
      Communications Director, NS Savannah Association, Inc.

  3. Angelika

    IEA Report Outlines Challenges For US Nuclear Industry – 6 Jan 2015
    “The report, ‘Energy Policies of IEA Countries: The United States – 2014’, calls on the US to finalise loan guarantees for existing new build and consider extending tax credits beyond the existing limit of six gigawatts and the end date of 2020.”
    ..I wonder how energy czar Dr Moniz will respond to this.
    “A process for vigorously pursuing the establishment of a deep geological disposal should be a high priority, since this is a key element in ensuring public confidence in nuclear power.”
    Good luck in finding a disposal place AND gaining public confidence – there is none, in both cases !

    1. Peter Sipp

      Hi Meredith, I can tell you from first hand experience: as a non-union pipe welder, I know about being layed off. One year I had 12 different jobs. I know how scary that can be. I can put myself in peoples shoes who fear for their jobs. Like i did, once layed off I found another jobs. I had to go on the road a couple of times. I survived. As will others in the future who find their job over.

  4. Meredith Angwin

    You quoted me above, so I hope you will post this note.

    First, what do you guys LIKE about people being laid off and more gas-fired plants being brought on-line? Have you ever heard of global warming? Oh I get it. Any pain is bearable (more CO2, less employment, higher prices on the grid, more money to fossil fuel companies) as long as a nuclear plant goes off-line.

    Second, no matter what anybody writes about how prices in New England won’t go up due to Vermont Yankee shutting down, our electricity prices are going up. This is reality, not speculation. Here’s a front-page story from my own local paper yesterday.

    Meredith Angwin

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      We don’t like anything about people being laid off. That’s an unfortunate consequence of closing a plant of any kind, and is something the nuclear industry in particular will have to face with increasing frequency in the coming years as the nuclear fleet ages and becomes ever more expensive and dangerous. If Entergy were a more responsible company, it would have planned for this event long ago and would have renewable energy projects underway that many VY employees could be retrained for. Other nuclear utilities should take note of that.

      We’ll also note that far more people lost their jobs at Fukushima than ever worked at that six-reactor site. As a Fukushima-clone reactor, the removal of the constant threat of VY reactor operations is welcome news indeed for most New Englanders, and outweighs the, let’s face it, relatively small job losses caused by VY’s shutdown.

      As for global warming, as we have noted in these pages many times (and surely will again…), and as numerous papers and studies posted on our website ( demonstrate, nuclear power is counterproductive at effectively addressing climate change. It is not carbon-free, as some of its backers, like Sen. Gregg, try to claim. More importantly, as the article by Mark Cooper cited in the VY piece explains, nuclear interferes with the clean energy 21st century grid, which requires power sources that can quickly ramp up and down and that will increasingly incorporate energy storage. Nuclear power is a 20th century technology in search of a niche in the 21st century, but there isn’t one for it.

      Finally, yes, New England electricity prices are going up, and–as has been the case for decades–are generally higher than for the rest of the country. But this has nothing to do with VY’s shutdown. Vermont Yankee didn’t keep electricity prices low while it was operating, and as it was unable to sell electricity at competitive rates in the region, it could not make electricity prices lower if it operated now.

  5. Leslie Corrice

    Mark Cooper’s comments, allegedly disproving Dr. Conca’s op-ed piece, are utterly confused. Nuclear construction costs have nothing to do with a forty-year-old nuke, and Vt. Yankee was in no way shuttered because of competition from renewables. He should either stick to the topic at-hand, or keep silent! V-Y was shuttered because of gas, only gas, and nothing but gas generation.

    1. Michael Mariotte Post author

      They key part of Cooper’s comments, which we quoted in the piece, was not about new reactors, it was about the rise in operating costs at existing reactors that has made them uneconomic for the utilities that own them. Here is the quote again: “The problem with new reactor construction costs is well known, but the really stunning development is the problem that nuclear power has in terms of operating costs. Nuclear power has always touted itself as the low-cost source of electricity by emphasizing its low operating costs and downplaying its high construction costs. That sleight of hand does not work anymore. Twenty years ago, nuclear power had the lowest operating costs, so keeping them online made perfect sense. As they aged, their operating costs rose, while technological progress has lowered the operating costs of renewables. Today the operating costs of nuclear reactors, particularly old ones like Vermont Yankee, are much higher than renewable alternatives.”

      Yes, the low price of natural gas had a major role in VY’s inability to compete–the same was true for Dominion’s Kewaunee reactor, which it closed in 2013. But renewables are the fastest-growing part of the electricity generation sector, a trend that is only going to continue–and will serve to help make other reactors unable to compete as well.

      1. Angelika

        I am curious about the question of reserve funds for dismantlement and existing waste deposit in case of decommissioning, are such appropriations mandatory for nuclear reactor businesses?

        “But renewables are the fastest-growing part of the electricity generation sector, a trend that is only going to continue–and will serve to help make other reactors unable to compete as well.”
        Exactly right, is why they’re called *renewables*.
        I haven’t read much about the down sides of the so praised “shale revolution”, other than the obvious link to more earthquakes as now emerges in the news more and more. What I miss, is a hint to the gas production being short lived, what after the well runs dry in a few years? They can’t drill up the entire country after all, – or will they?
        The ‘revolution’ in this enterprise takes place at Wall Street only, for a limited period of time. And it looks like the Saudis are now doing their best to shorten that time even more.

      2. Michael Mariotte Post author

        Angelika, I can’t speak about the situation worldwide, but in the U.S., yes, utilities are required to establish separate decommissioning funds that are supposed to cover the eventual costs of decommissioning. However, the decommissioning cost estimates originally tied to these funds–e.g. the monetary goal the funds were to achieve–were based on old studies that greatly underestimated the actual costs of decommissioning that are being experienced at closed reactors. In addition, most decommissioning funds lost substantial amounts of money in the Great Recession, and while some have now recouped those losses, others have not. The overall result is that many, probably most, reactors have, like Vermont Yankee, insufficient money in their funds to cover actual decommissioning costs. Where the additional money will come from will surely be a battle played out in many states over the next several years.

        We are not experts on fracking and shale gas; plenty of our environmental colleagues are. We do know fracking is causing in many locations, especially along the Marcellus Shale area, the release of high-levels of “natural” radiation from uranium deposits in the region. As long as the frackers are making money and not challenged by states with additional regulation (like Maryland) or banned entirely (like New York), and most apparently still are even while oil prices are plunging, they will continue. But the anti-fracking movement is quite vibrant and growing rapidly and we would expect more action, in both directions, at the state level over the next several years.

  6. Sally G

    My understanding is that no commercial reactor, on ship or land, will be as safe as military reactors, submarine or otherwise, for the simple reason that no commercial entity, with an overarching goal of maximizing profit (as required by corporate by-laws), would invest as heavily in safety features as will the military, with its top priority of keeping personnel safe. This was suggested to me by a former military nuclear scientist.

  7. Pingback: Running in reverse: the world’s ‘nuclear power renaissance’ | Eco Bio III Millennio

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