It was an epic day in many respects, and a testament to the strength of democracy here in Vermont. Hundreds jammed the statehouse, having traveled in terrible blizzard conditions to witness the Senate’s historic vote and make sure senators were hearing from their constituents. As the debate was underway, Senate pages scurried around delivering scores of messages from citizens to senators as they deliberated on the floor. In a memorable moment just before the vote, Senator Choate said, “Just in the past three hours I've been delivered 50 to 60 pink slips.” Our volunteers in the state house were working non-stop to make sure voters were contacting their Senators.
Every walk of life was represented there, farmers, schoolteachers, students young and old, business people, and activists who have been fighting the plant since before its construction. It was an inspiring moment for democracy as we saw the true power of grassroots action. When people stand up, raise their voices and organize we can win big victories for the planet and our neighbors. As we traveled around the state holding volunteer meetings, generating calls, letters, and emails, talking to business people, and learning from long-time community members the response was overwhelming.
When I was in Ludlow with a volunteer knocking on doors, one man asked why we were collecting letters. We explained that a group of citizens was meeting with a Senator the next day. “When, where?” he asked, and then showed up at 8:30AM on a Saturday to make sure his Senator would vote the right way. So did 24 other people; and the Senator had no choice. She voted no.
These stories are not unique, the vote yesterday was by a citizen legislature that listens to its people, and Greenpeace has worked hard to make sure those voices are heard. Our volunteers were tireless and committed, our goals were high, but we have just won a huge victory for the planet. Vermonters are tired of sitting in the shadow of this leaky old reactor and getting lied to and swindled by Entergy Louisiana.
The fight isn’t over. Entergy is a powerful corporation and has said they’re not done, and we aren’t either. Now we want to see the House show the same courage as the Senate and vote this session to retire Vermont Yankee. The vote yesterday was the first time a state legislative body has voted to retire a nuclear plant; we want the House to be the second.
This vote also sends a strong message to the nation and the world that the nuclear renaissance is dead on arrival. President Obama: Vermont knows that nuclear energy can’t be a part of our energy future. We need investments in renewable sources of energy to power our future and put people back to work. The US can follow Vermont’s leadership to the energy revolution America needs.
No Nukes (new or old)!
Jarred Cobb and John Deans
In the face of fierce green opposition and withering scorn from both liberal and conservative budget hawks, Obama has done what George W. Bush could not: pledge billions of taxpayer dollars for a relapse of the 20th Century’s most expensive technological failure.
Obama has announced some $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors planned for Georgia. Their Westinghouse AP-1000 designs have been rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as being unable to withstand natural cataclysms like hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.
The Vogtle site was to originally host four reactors at a total cost of $600 million; it wound up with two at $9 billion.
The Southern Company, which wants to build these two new reactors, has cut at least one deal with Japanese financiers set to cash in on American taxpayer largess. The interest rate on the federal guarantees remains bitterly contested. The funding is being debated between at least five government agencies, and may well be tested in the courts. It's not clear whether union labor will be required and what impact that might have on construction costs.
The Congressional Budget Office and other analysts warn the likely failure rate for government-back reactor construction loans could be in excess of 50%. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has admitted he was unaware of the CBO’s report when he signed on to the Georgia guarantees.
Over the past several years the estimated price tag for proposed new reactors has jumped from $2-3 billion each in some cases to more than $12 billion today. The Chair of the NRC currently estimates it at $10 billion, well before a single construction license has been issued, which will take at least a year.
Energy experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute and elsewhere estimate that a dollar invested in increased efficiency could save as much as seven times as much energy than one invested in nuclear plants can produce, while producing ten times as many permanent jobs.
Georgia has been targeted largely because its regulators have demanded ratepayers put up the cash for the reactors as they're being built. Florida and Georgia are among a small handful of states taxing electric consumers for projects that cannot come on line for many years, and that may never deliver a single electron of electricity.
Two Florida Public Service Commissioners, recently appointed by Republican Governor Charlie Crist (now a candidate for the US Senate), helped reject over a billion dollars in rate hikes demanded by Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy, both of which want to build double-reactors at ratepayer expense. The utilities now say they'll postpone the projects proposed for Turkey Point and Levy County.
In 2005 the Bush Administration set aside some $18.5 billion for reactor loan guarantees, but the Department of Energy has been unable to administer them. Obama wants an additional $36 billion to bring the fund up to $54.5 billion. Proposed projects in South Carolina, Maryland and Texas appear to be next in line.
But the NRC has raised serious questions about Toshiba-owned Westinghouse’s AP-1000 slated for Georgia’s Vogtle site, as well as for South Carolina and Turkey Point. The French-made EPR design proposed for Maryland has been challenged by regulators in Finland, France and Great Britain. In Texas, a $4 billion price jump has sparked a political upheaval in San Antonio and elsewhere, throwing the future of that project in doubt.
Taxpayers are also on the hook for potential future accidents from these new reactors. In 1957, the industry promised Congress and the country that nuclear technology would quickly advance to the point that private insurers would take on the liability for any future disaster, which could by all serious estimates run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Only $11 billion has been set aside to cover the cost of such a catastrophe. But now the industry says it will not build even this next generation of plants without taxpayers underwriting liability for future accidents. Thus the “temporary” program could ultimately stretch out to a full century or more.
In the interim, Obama has all but killed Nevada’s proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. He has appointed a commission of nuclear advocates to “investigate” the future of high-level reactor waste. But after 53 years, the industry is further from a solution than ever.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that at least 27 of America’s 104 licensed reactors are now leaking radioactive tritium. The worst case may be Entergy’s Vermont Yankee, near the state’s southeastern border with New Hampshire and Massachusetts. High levels of contamination have been found in test wells around the reactor, and experts believe the Connecticut River is at serious risk.
A furious statewide grassroots campaign aims to shut the plant, whose license expires in 2012. A binding agreement between Entergy and the state gives the legislature the power to deny an extension. US Senator Bernie Saunders (D-VY) has demanded the plant close. The legislature may vote on it in a matter of days.
Obama has now driven a deep wedge between himself and the core of the environmental movement, which remains fiercely anti-nuclear. While reactor advocates paint the technology green, the opposition has been joined by fiscal conservatives like the National Taxpayer Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.
Reactor backers hailing a “renaissance” in atomic energy studiously ignore France’s catastrophic Olkiluoto project, now $3 billion over budget and 3 years behind schedule. Parallel problems have crippled another project at Flamanville, France, and are virtually certain to surface in the US.
The reactor industry has spent untold millions lobbying for this first round of loan guarantees. There's no doubt it will seek far more in the coming months. Having failed to secure private American financing, the question will be: In a tight economy, how much public money will Congress throw at this obsolete technology?
The potential flow of taxpayer guarantees to Georgia means nuclear opponents now have a tangible target. Also guaranteed is ferocious grassroots opposition to financing, licensing and construction of this and all other new reactor proposals, as well as to continued operation of leaky rustbucket reactors like Vermont Yankee.
The “atomic renaissance” is still a very long way from going tangibly critical.
Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.solartopia.org.
In the deep winter of New England, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater.
This is bad timing for Yankee’s owner, Entergy of Louisiana, because the Vermont legislature is currently considering Entergy’s request to extend the 38-year-old plant’s license to operate for another 20 years. (Vermont is the only state in which the legislature has the power to intervene in a nuclear plant’s license.)
Even Governor Jim Douglas, who has been an unabashed Entergy supporter until now, demanded the firing of Entergy Vice President Jay Thayer. Mr. Thayer swore under oath that Vermont Yankee has no underground pipes. Then it was discovered that the tritium was leaking from – underground pipes. (Still a friend to Entergy, the governor has also called for a “timeout” to allow the corporation to rebuild the people’s shattered trust.)
It’s unclear at this point who is the dog and who is the pony in this dog-and-pony show, but Entergy did get rid of Mr. Thayer. (Which is not to say he was fired. He was placed on “administrative leave” pending investigation, which means he goes on vacation until this whole thing blows over; when he returns he will be sent off to tell whoppers about some other Entergy facility.)
The new face of Entergy in Vermont is Curt Hebert, Jr., Entergy’s vice president of external affairs and former head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Mr. Hebert is known as a lifelong opponent of government intervention in energy markets. (Then why was he the federal government’s chief energy regulator, you ask? He was appointed by George W. Bush.)
So up here in Vermont, the public, press and politicians are seriously cheesed off at the out-of-state corporation that has mismanaged the state’s only nuke since it bought it in 2002 and has been caught passing misinformation again and again. What’s Entergy’s response? To send a bitter foe of government intervention to the one state where the government has more power to intervene than any other. It makes one wonder if Entergy’s CEO Wayne Leonard might be spending too much time in the radiation room.
Mr. Hebert’s greatest claim to fame is that he presided over the federal government’s deer-in-the-headlights inaction when the 2000-2001 energy crisis caused rolling blackouts in California. (Heckuva job, Curty!)
According to published accounts, Mr. Hebert – acting on Dick Cheney’s orders – covered up the market manipulation by Enron and others that led to the California and instead encouraged California to cancel its environmental regulations. Now his kind ministrations will be visited on Vermont. Oh boy.
To paraphrase Lord Acton, power corrupts and nuclear power corrupts absolutely.
Luckily, the VT Legislature gave itself the authority to vote against a license renewal for Vermont Yankee, and that is what we're making sure happens when the session starts in January. Greenpeace is working in a coalition with some great local groups to move legislators that have not made commitments on what way they will vote. (We also did a tour around the state earlier this year to talk to Vermonters about nuclear power and the future of energy in their state.)
I had the pleasure of spending the last two weeks with a terrific crew of Greenpeace activists, our GOT students, and volunteers from around Vermont. We organized events in Montpelier, Rutland and Burlington with our One World hot-air balloon. We had state representatives, business leaders, other environmental groups and community members come out to the events to address the crowds. The best quote came from State Representative Paul Poirier who said something like: “I’m no nuclear engineer, just a regular guy, but know that we can’t have Vermont Yankee around any longer.”
The balloon tour highlighted the fact that Vermont doesn't need nuclear power. We have local renewable companies that could replace the plant's energy, which would put our money into the hands of our friends and neighbors rather than in Entergy's pockets. Vermonters are standing up across the state to call for a clean energy future, and we hope you are too.
No nukes in Vermont!
One thing was very clear during this tour: Vermonters know their stuff. They know about the cooling tower collapse on the nuclear facility. They know that the plant is operating at 120% of its designed capacity. They know that the plant has had three radioactive leaks in just this year alone.
Basically, they know that the plant is dirty, dangerous, and expensive.
Since everyone already seems know these scary details, I’m not going to go into more depth about them. Instead, I’m going to talk about how informed and passionate the people of Vermont are with regards to this issue.
I had the opportunity to travel to several different towns throughout the state to hear what people had to say about Vermont Yankee and nuclear power. I spoke with hundreds of people about this issue and I was extremely impressed by how knowledgeable the general public of Vermont is about VT Yankee and how up to date they are on the political climate of the state. Many people signed petitions and wrote letters to the state legislature about this issue and when I asked them if they had been following VT Yankee in the news recently, they would often respond, “Well, of course – I live here.”
I am not from Vermont. I cannot pretend to know what it is like for the people in Vernon or Brattleboro to hear the monthly test sirens at the nuclear plant that will go off in the event of a nuclear accident.
But I do know this: Vermonters want their state to be nuclear free. I know this because of the hundreds of conversations I had, from the hundreds of people that signed petitions – and even from the hundreds of people that honked and waved while I drove the Rolling Sunlight down I-89.
Vermonters get it: This nuclear power plant needs to retire.
It is time to invest in clean, renewable energies like wind, solar and biomass, which will help solve our energy problems and create tons of new jobs. Vermont has an amazing opportunity right now to set the precedent in our country for how we deal with old, dangerous nuclear power plants. It’s time for the Vermont legislature to get out there and listen to their constituents as I have – and once they do, they’ll too realize that Vermonters are ready for Vermont Yankee to shut down.
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