Vermont Yankee and the collapse of the US nuclear power industry
Only eight months through, 2013 is already a remarkable year for the anti-nuclear power movement in the US. Where Germany is following a deliberate government-mandated path to phase out nuclear power entirely, in the US the atomic industry is simply collapsing on its own − aided by concerted and strategic grassroots organising campaigns and legal actions.
Entergy Corporation's August 27 announcement of the pending shutdown of the Vermont Yankee reactor at the end of its current fuel cycle was just the latest blow to the industry, which already has seen four other reactor shutdowns (the most in one year ever) and the abandonment of six proposed new reactors, not to mention cancellation of several power uprates. And more may be coming.
As economist Marc Cooper of the Vermont Law School's Institute for Energy and the Environment put it, "What we are seeing today is nothing less than the rapid-fire downsizing of nuclear power in the United States. It is important to recognize that the tough times the U.S. nuclear power industry faces today are only going to get worse."
And indeed, there are several − perhaps the word should be many − other reactors, both operating and proposed, that sit on the edge of the same intersection of cost and safety concerns that are bringing the industry down faster than anyone would have imagined just a year ago.
Conventional wisdom holds that it is the current abundance and dirt-cheap prices for natural gas brought about by the fracking boom that is undermining nuclear power, making it impossible for marginal ageing reactors to compete economically, much less for utilities to even consider extraordinarily expensive new reactors. When Duke Energy took a second look at its $24 billion Levy County, Florida project for example, it didn't take long for it to realise it could build the same amount of natural gas-fired capacity for a fraction of that amount.
Conventional wisdom isn't always wrong. And the availability of cheap natural gas is certainly taking its toll on the industry. There is no doubt that Wisconsin's Kewaunee reactor − by all accounts about as problem-free as an old reactor gets − would still be operating today if it could compete with low-cost gas. The UBS investment firm predicted Vermont Yankee's demise months ago, arguing that it couldn't compete in the regional marketplace.
But over the long term, natural gas isn't what the nuclear industry should be most worried about. Clean alternatives to nuclear power, especially solar and wind, are growing at a frenetic pace as costs plunge. A rooftop photovoltaic system is now being installed in the US every four minutes, and that will become every 90 seconds by 2016..
John Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said in August 2013 that "Solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything." If a single drop of water on the pitcher's mound at Dodger Stadium is doubled every minute, Wellinghoff said, a person chained to the highest seat would be in danger of drowning in an hour. "That's what is happening in solar. It could double every two years," he said.
The goal of a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system by mid-century suddenly seems quite attainable. According to the Energy Information Administration, for the first five months of 2013, renewable energy sources (including hydropower) provided 18.48% more energy to the US than nuclear power. Solar grew by 32.26% from a year ago while wind grew by 20.99%, continuing a trend of the past few years. And this actually underestimates solar power: non-utility and small-scale (residential and commercial rooftop) photovoltaic systems don't show up as electric generation since to the utilities that provide generation statistics they represent only a reduction in demand.
Indeed, no one seems to know just how much rooftop solar power there is in the US, but with a new installation every four minutes, the amount is growing rapidly.
This movement toward small-scale distributed generation is turning the traditional utility model on its head and in the process scaring the pants off of utility officials. David Crane is CEO of NRG Energy, itself a major utility and operator of the two existing South Texas nuclear reactors. But after Fukushima, NRG dropped out of a project to build two new reactors there and is now betting heavily on solar power. Crane recently predicted to Business Week that "in about the time it has taken cell phones to supplant land lines in most U.S. homes, the grid will become increasingly irrelevant as customers move toward decentralized homegrown green energy."
This coming change in the fundamental structure of electric utilities bodes poorly for large baseload power plants of any kind − especially nuclear power which cannot be powered up and down quickly − and has become another reason utilities are scrapping marginal power plants, both nuclear and coal.
Still, dinosaurs thrashing their tails didn't always go down easily, and neither do nuclear reactors. They have to be helped along by effective grassroots opposition.
No one can doubt that Southern California Edison would still be trying to run the San Onofre reactors, even after their botched steam generator repair job, if it weren't for the sustained and stunningly-effective opposition mounted by Friends of the Earth and numerous grassroots groups in southern California, aided by the Nuclear Free California network formed in August 2011.
At Vermont Yankee, the history of protest and opposition dates back to the 1970s. While Clamshell Alliance protests at Seabrook were larger and got more attention, Vermont Yankee was a Clamshell target as well. The New England Coalition has been filing legal challenges in every venue possible for just about as long.
After having successfully closed the Yankee Rowe reactor in nearby western Massachusetts, the Citizens Awareness Network turned its attention to Vermont Yankee and the first Nuclear Free New England action camp was held there in 1998. Twenty-one people were arrested at the plant gates at the culmination of that camp on August 27, 1998. The reactor closed 15 years later to the day.
During those 15 years, CAN, the New England Coalition, VPIRG and more protested, lobbied, filed legal briefs, and never let up. New groups were formed, like the Shut It Down affinity group − composed entirely of women over 70 − which held monthly protests for more than eight years and often were arrested and the Sage Alliance, an umbrella group which brought together perhaps the largest Vermont Yankee protest ever in March 2012, more than 1,000 people in Brattleboro (which has a population of about 12,000), resulting in more than 130 arrests.
By the end, just about the entire state of Vermont was united against the reactor. The State Senate had voted 26-4 to close the reactor. The Governor wanted it shut, so did the entire Congressional delegation. Entergy had fought vigorously against all these efforts, and in early August had pretty much won a court victory that determined the state could not close the reactor on safety grounds, and that it was safety issues that had dominated the Senate's vote (though the decision left open the door for some different state actions that might have closed the reactor).
Some believe that Entergy closed the reactor now to keep that court victory as a precedent and prevent other state action that might also be viewed as precedent − Entergy also owns the much larger Indian Point reactors near New York City, where another major grassroots campaign, supported by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is underway to prevent relicensing and close them permanently.
The nuclear "renaissance" in the US began in the summer of 2007, when the first license application in more than 30 years was filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for the Calvert Cliffs-3 reactor in Maryland. On March 11, 2013 − the second anniversary of the Fukushima disaster − the NRC Commissioners upheld the denial of a license for that reactor, the first in this year's remarkable sequence of shutdowns, cancellations and abandonments. All that's left are two reactors under construction in Georgia (which state officials now admit they might not have approved in today's climate), two in South Carolina, and one old TVA reactor that's been under construction for three decades.
Instead of a renaissance, the nuclear industry is being routed. Its ageing reactors face safety issues, big repair bills and growing public opposition. Its new reactors are too expensive to build. And, scariest of all for nuclear utilities, their entire business model of large, inflexible baseload power plants is being challenged not by off-the-grid hippies, but by other utility executives who see the writing on the wall.
The 2013 collapse of the U.S. nuclear power industry may seem astounding today. Over the next few years, it's more likely to seem routine.