Guest Column: What Killed Vermont Yankee
The 1933 movie King Kong ends with a message that resonates when you ponder what brought Entergy to decide to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power reactor next year: King Kong escapes from his captors and, clutching Ann Darrow, climbs to the top of New York’s Empire State Building. After being raked with bullets from biplanes, the great ape plummets to the street below. As a crowd gathers around the dead hulk, Kong’s captor, Denham, makes his way to the police barricade. The police officer says, “The airplanes got him.” The film ends with Denham’s famous reply: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes… it was Beauty killed the Beast.”
Yes, it was economics that finally got Vermont Yankee—low wholesale electric prices, high production costs. But, as with King Kong, there’s a backstory. The ultimate goal of a large corporation such as Entergy is to make money. Its growth or demise is about profit. But the backstory is about what actually prevented VY from making enough profit to continue to operate for decades to come.
Cheaper natural gas was a significant factor, as was an old plant that would require significant maintenance in the coming years. The prospect of costly federally-mandated safety improvements, precipitated by the Fukushima disaster, also loomed.
But what may have sealed Vermont Yankee’s fate was grassroots activism. In 2005 and 2006, when Acts 74 and 160 were passed in the Vermont legislature, both bills were enthusiastically supported by the entire legislative body, the Republican governor, Jim Douglas, and Entergy itself. Act 74 provided Entergy with necessary spent fuel onsite storage capabilities to continue operations. Act 160 gave the legislature power to issue a Certificate of Public Good, state approval necessary for operation after 2012. In the Montpelier environment of seven or eight years ago, it didn’t seem possible to Entergy and its supporters that these legislative acts would ever be a problem. But they did become a big, expensive problem.
Acts 74 and 160 became problems because the anti-nuke environmental community in Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts worked hard, long and intelligently to rally public opinion and educate the Vermont Legislature. Acts 74 and 160 became problems because Entergy underestimated the nature of Vermont’s uniquely accessible part-time citizen legislature. Entergy also never anticipated that in a narrow 2010 gubernatorial election victory, a new governor would be propelled into office largely on the strength of a promise to close VY.
Entergy’s income was first impacted when, by late 2010 and early 2011, its reputation had become so damaged by its own questionable actions, brought into the spotlight by activists, that Vermont electric utilities played hardball in contract negotiations. As a result, no deal emerged between VY and Vermont utilities, and Entergy was left to sell its product on the “spot” market, where prices had dropped because of cheaper natural gas.
Finally, while Entergy prevailed in its suit in federal court to preempt Acts 160 and 74 , that victory came at a high cost in its corporate lifeblood–money—as it spent millions of dollars in lobbying costs, legal fees and publicity campaigns.
As with King Kong’s demise, economic bullets pierced Entergy’s flesh. But it was the power and the spirit of the people that raised the stakes and greatly increased the costs. No, it wasn’t just economics. Beauty killed the beast.•
Bob Bady is a founding member of the Safe and Green Campaign.