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Vermont Yankee: Opponents Cheer, Supporters Lament

When Sharon resident Nina Swaim heard the news Tuesday morning, she was so excited that she screamed.

Her partner called her at work to tell her Louisana-based Entergy Corp. announced that the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station — the state’s lone reactor — would cease operation the end of next year .

Swaim has been advocating closing the region’s nuclear power plants since the 1970s, she said, when she and her mother started protesting at the Seabrook Nuclear Plant in New Hampshire. Their involvement in protests expanded throughout the region, including at Vermont Yankee.

They’d take turns, each attending every other protest. That way, if one got arrested, the other could still be home to take care of the dogs.

“We had quite a team,” she said.

Her decades of involvement — including a handful of arrests along the way — made Tuesday’s news all the sweeter.

“It’s 42 years of struggle,” Swaim said, referring to Vermont Yankee’s commercial operations starting in 1972, “and we’ve come to the end of part of it. ... We have to really keep on top of (the cleanup process), but the wonderful news is that they’ve admitted they need to close down.”

In a news release Tuesday morning, Entergy Chairman and CEO Leo Denault said closing the plant was an “agonizing decision” driven by market forces, including “sustained low power prices, high cost structure and wholesale electricity market design flaws” at the plant.

Regardless, Swaim said, the credit should go to protesters.

“We instituted the financial reasons,” she said. “From the public saying, ‘we don’t want this plant, it’s too expensive, it’s too unsafe, it’s rusting, it needs to shut down,’ (the) Vermont Senate said, ‘we’re not going to buy power from it anymore when the license runs out ... and I think they got really tired of seeing us out there and letting the workers know we’re not supportive of this. The plant is saying it’s economic, but the people really need to be congratulated for all the work they have done.”

In stark contrast were the views of nuclear supporters like Wilder’s Meredith Angwin, who writes the Yes Vermont Yankee blog, and Enfield’s Howard Shaffer, a former nuclear engineer who supports Vermont Yankee and other plants. They separately learned of the news via email Tuesday morning, just hours before they planned to carpool to Montpelier for a farewell luncheon for Entergy’s Brian Cosgrove, the company’s manager of government relations.

“Of course there’s a lot of sadness there,” Shaffer said, “but we fought the good fight, and this is another round, and we go on from here to use what we learned here in other places,” citing the New Hampshire’s Seabrook and Indian Point Energy Center in New York as examples.

Angwin said her reaction was “very disappointed and very upset.”

“I think it’s the wrong decision because it’s very short term,” she said. “One of the major factors they said were low natural gas prices, and there’s every reason to believe those gas prices are going up fairly rapidly.”

She also rejected the notion that Entergy was influenced by opponents, citing recent court decisions in Entergy’s favor, and worried about the impact that Vermont Yankee’s closing will have on the state economy.

“This is forcing the grid to a very high dependency on natural gas, and the prices of natural gas are very volatile,” she said. “(W)ithout nuclear plants on the grid … we are going to be just following that along.”

Green Mountain Power President and CEO Mary Powell said in a statement that Vermont Yankee’s closing will not affect Green Mountain Power customers.

“We have not purchased electricity from Vermont Yankee since March 2012 and there will be no immediate or direct impact on our customers,” Powell said. “We have been very successful meeting our goals of providing our customers with low cost, low carbon and reliable electricity and will continue to do so, whether or not (Vermont Yankee) is operating.”

A slew of lawmakers chimed in with statements Tuesday, including Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, who said the closing is “long-delayed good news” for Vermont, but also “comes with clear and troublesome concerns.”

“The method of decommissioning is crucial,” Campbell said. “Dry-cask storage for the better part of a century will render the site unusuable for generations, and is therefore unacceptable by any standard. We hope to work out these concerns with Entergy over the next year.

“Rest assured, however: the Senate will not content itself with hope. We will have a weather eye on the decommissioning process, and will stand ready to steer the process as forcefully as is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal: returning the Vernon site to greenfield status.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the closing “provides a potential opportunity as we look for ways to advance Vermont’s energy future and to find new jobs for Vermont Yankee employees.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, called the closing “a devastating blow to the plant’s 600-plus employees, their families and the Windham County economy.”

“High-paying jobs are few and far between in Vermont; we now run the risk of seeing many highly skilled employees who work at Vermont Yankee leave our state,” he said. “Job loss numbers as high as predicted in this situation are not anything a region can plan for.

“The contribution Vermont Yankee employees, contractors and the plant itself make to the local economy cannot be understated; in that light, we must commit ourselves to helping Windham County fill what soon could be a gaping economic hole.”

New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan said that state was ready to “minimize any impacts to our electric grid, energy costs, and reliability in the region” and to “assist displaced workers and to ensure that the closure of the plant protects the health and safety of New Hampshire’s citizens.”

For both sides, the focus now shifts to the decommissioning process — Swaim saying activists must ensure a safe cleanup, Shaffer saying there will need to be outreach to the public — and to other nuclear plants in the region, either working to keep them open or trying to shut them down.

First, though, Swaim said, “I just think we all should party for a while.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.

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