Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to close in 2014

Opposition to plant has grown over the years in state with one of the nation's strongest anti-nuclear movements

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont.
Brian Snyder/Reuters

Entergy Corp, the New Orleans-based company that runs Vermont's only nuclear power plant, will shut it down by the end of next year, ending a nasty legal battle over the future of the 40-year-old plant that drew concern from lawmakers over its safety, age and misstatements by plant management about components at the reactor. 

Entergy Corp had been battling the state since 2010, when the Vermont Senate voted against a measure that would have authorized a state board to grant the plant, called Vermont Yankee, a permit to operate for an additional 20 years. 

Opposition to the Vernon, Vt., plant has grown over the years, most recently focusing on a January 2010 disclosure of a leak of radioactive tritium. 

Still, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the plant a 20-year operating license in 2011 that would have kept it running until March 2032.

But Leo Denault, Entergy's chief executive since February, said in an interview with Reuters that the plant was no longer economically viable due to a combination of rising capital costs after the Sept. 11 attacks, Japan's 2011 Fukushima disaster and low wholesale electricity prices stemming from cheap natural gas burned by competing plants. 

The Fukushima meltdowns and radioactive contamination led regulators to review safety standards, which could lead to requirements for costly plant improvements. Those concerns come on the heels of post-9/11 calls for better security around plants. Surging output of shale gas, which sent natural gas prices to 10-year lows in 2012, has also weighed on the nuclear industry.

Vermont Yankee, which uses the identical reactor design as Fukushima Daiichi, is among the oldest and smallest plants in the country. Located in a state with one of the nation's strongest anti-nuclear movements, it had long been considered among the most likely to be shuttered.

Vermont Yankee opened in 1972. In the past, the plant was said to provide as much as a third of the state's electrical supply. Currently, nearly all of its power is shipped to electric companies in neighboring states.

Rich Sedano, director of U.S. programs for the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy sector consulting group, said the nuclear plant's small slice of New England's power supply -- about 2 percent -- means the closure will have little effect on consumers.

Denault said that when it closes, the plant will be placed in "safe-store," a term for a regulatory limbo that allows it to be mothballed for up to 60 years with its radioactive core and spent nuclear fuel remaining on site.

However, Vermont Senators, independent Bernie Sanders and Democrat Patrick Leahy, both said they would push the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject Entergy's plan, speed up the decommissioning process and ensure that Entergy pays for the full cost.

The station will remain under the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission throughout the decommissioning process.

The Vermont Yankee closure makes five U.S. nuclear plants that have announced in the last year that they will shut before their licenses expire. Denault said Entergy is open to a settlement with New York State officials over the future of its controversial Indian Point nuclear plant, just north of New York City.

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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