In a highly publicized decision last week, the Vermont Senate voted to potentially close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, the state’s only nuclear plant. The non-binding vote marked the culmination of a year-long debate in Vermont as to whether the state should renew the operating license of Vermont Yankee, a 37-year old plant that is seeking a 20-year operating extension. Unfortunately, this decision was more about perception than fact.
The tide had been turning against Vermont Yankee as news emerged that the plant had been leaking tritium, a weakly radioactive hydrogen isotope produced in the course of operating a nuclear power reactor, from underground pipes. The plant owner’s public relations effort in response to the leaks was inadequate and disorganized. Indeed, they had originally stated last year before the leak that the underground pipes did not exist. Regardless of intent, much of the public felt misled, which created opposition to the relicensing effort.
When it comes to nuclear energy, fact is one thing and perception is another. The fact of the tritium leak is that it was minor in scope and did not threaten public health or safety. Vermont Yankee has been safely operated for over 37 years, and officials from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission informed Vermont lawmakers that there is no reason to close the plant.
Further, while public health and safety is not imperiled by Vermont Yankee, the economic and environmental future of the state could be jeopardized by needlessly closing down the plant. Nuclear accounts for a higher percentage of electricity generation in Vermont than in any other state: around 75 percent. And since Vermont Yankee is the only nuclear plant in the state, it is responsible for every bit of that production.
Shutting down Vermont Yankee now, when the state has no viable power alternative, will result in substantially higher electricity rates. One analysis from a year ago estimated a 19 percent to 39 percent increase in the cost of electricity. Given that Vermont households and businesses already pay 30 percent more than the national average, such rates could be devastating for the state’s economy.
Then there are the environmental facts. The truth is that Vermont enjoys emissions-free electricity because of Vermont Yankee. What’s going to replace it? Wind? Solar? Hardly. Not only are these sources expensive, they are intermittent and require massive amounts of land to produce a similar amount of energy. Natural gas and coal could provide Vermont with the electricity, but building a new plant when the existing one is working just fine is a monumental waste of resources.
And one more thing: the 650 jobs at the Vermont Yankee plant will be lost if the vote stands.
Then there is perception. Spills and leaks of radioactive materials should never be taken lightly; they should, however, be viewed reasonably and dispassionately. Considering the facts of Vermont Yankee’s tritium leak in light of its 37-year safety record and the overwhelming economic and environmental benefits, closing the plant down early is a travesty. But that is what happens when perception drives policy, which is too often the case when it comes to nuclear energy.
Jeff Witt is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm