Changing Planet

Nuclear Power in New England: Lessons for Ecological Diplomacy

As the United States considers the role of nuclear power in its national energy strategy after the Fukushima disaster, I requested policy analyst Dr. Richard Watts to share perspectives from his recent book on environmental conflicts around the license renewal of The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant on the Connecticut river is close to the triborder region between Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Entergy Corporation


Guest post by Dr. Richard Watts

On March 21, 2012, Vermont Yankee’s initial forty year license expires. The state, the federal government and the plant’s owner, Entergy, are locked in a bitter struggle about the plant’s future.

The debate over the plant’s future puts Vermont at the front lines of a national conversation about the role of states and the federal government in nuclear power plant oversight. That debate will continue to play out over the next few years. In Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, I tell the story of how we got to where we are today.

Vermont Yankee has operated from a corner of Vermont since 1972, providing close to one-third of the state’s electricity for forty years, employing hundreds of Vermonters and contributing to state and local tax rolls. For much of its existence the plant has been a fairly quiet part of Vermont’s electric mix, owned and operated by Vermont electric utilities, under the oversight of state regulators.

This started to change in 2002 when Entergy purchased the plant. Over the following years Entergy won permission to increase the plant’s capacity and store radioactive waste on the plant’s grounds. In 2008, Entergy applied to the state for a permit to operate an additional 20 years as they had agreed to do when they bought the plant. The story began to move from a local story, to a state story to ultimately the national story it has become.

The first real turn came in 2007 when one of the plant’s cooling towers collapsed providing a powerful visual symbol for opponents promoting a story line of an aging nuclear power plant. Over time events continued to underscore that narrative. Opponents were successful in re-framing the debate from low-priced reliability electricity to one focused on an untrustworthy out-of-state company mismanaging its Vermont asset.

Entergy contributed to this story-line, attempting to spin-off the plant into a new holding company and opposing efforts to increase funds set aside for plant decommissioning. The company further undercut its own economic message by failing to arrive at an agreement to sell electricity to state residents. Company misstatements around the underground pipes and leaking radioactive fluids added to the levels of distrust.

All of these events, combined with skilled opponents and a rapidly changing political environment, led to the plant’s public meltdown, a meltdown exacerbated by the company’s own missteps. That meltdown placed Vermont Yankee into the middle of a national debate about the role of states in overseeing power plants, including nuclear power, within their state borders. At the state level, states are seeking to exercise their traditional non-safety authority in the area of economics,  land-use and planning. The Vermont Yankee case is being watched carefully both in Vermont and nationally because of the impact on state policy-makers and citizens.

For Vermont Yankee, the future remains uncertain. But a review of the history presents a cautionary tale here for those who manage nuclear power plants. Regardless of where you stand on the technology, citizens and stakeholders expect companies to operate in a responsible and transparent matter. Vermonters care deeply about electricity and the companies that provide it. Ultimately Entergy was unable to navigate the complicated social, economic and cultural webs that make up electric decision-making in Vermont. The history suggests that the present impasse is as much as about corporate citizenship as it is a debate on nuclear power.

Richard Watts, Ph.D. is the author of Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, published March 21, 2012 by the Center for Research on Vermont and White River Press. More information at Watts is an assistant research professor in the Department of Community Development and Applied Economics at the University of Vermont

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
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  • Rob Mullen

    I have not read Dr. Watts’ book, but was interested to note in this post, what seemed to me possibly a slight ‘friendly critic’ of Entergy tone. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it would color how I read Dr. Watts’ analysis. There were a couple of passages in particular that crystallized that general feeling which had been growing as I read.

    The first was “Company misstatements around the underground pipes and leaking radioactive fluids added to the levels of distrust.”. “Company misstatements…” glosses over a series of explanations from Entergy of Tritium leaks that as it turned out could honestly be characterized as blatant lies. This passage then immediately goes on to not only omit the fact that these leaks reached the Connecticut River, but actually obscures that fact by referring only to “…underground pipes and leaking radioactive fluids…”. I gather that the diplomatic/PR aspects of the situation and not the scientific merits of the case are the focus of this commentary, but to the extent scientific facts of the case are pertinent, they shouldn’t be edited in a manner that invites misunderstanding. The passage closes by noting that all of this “…added to the levels of distrust.” That is quite an understatement in my experience (I am a Vermonter).

    The second followed immediately with Entergy’s problems being laid at the feet of “skilled opponents and a rapidly changing political environment…exacerbated by the company’s own missteps.” as though the whole controversy was a battle of PR specialists and the facts had little to do with it. Again, I appreciate the focus is basically the PR battle, not the science, but this gets to the point of the tail wagging the dog.

    My irritations notwithstanding, I thought the piece was a good synopsis of the situation, though more suited as advice to utility companies on how to manage their PR campaigns, rather than general diplomatic suggestions both sides could benefit from. I am personally on the fence about Vermont Yankee, though not about Entergy. This post would be more useful if it did not at times minimize Entergy’s flaws by seeming to try to portray what is arguably corruption and incompetence as simple (and presumably forgivable) errors in judgment.

  • Amparo Martinez

    You really make it seem so simple with your presentation but I find that topic to be really something that I think I would under no circumstances understand. It seems too complicated and also really broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

    National Power Supply

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