Meltdown: Vermont Votes to Shut Down Its Nuke Plant

Last Updated Feb 25, 2010 1:59 PM EST

The Vermont legislature has decided that it's done wth nuclear power. On Wednesday, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of shutting down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, an aging facility that provides the state with over three quarters of its electricity.

Vermont Yankee has been owned since 2002 by Entergy, but is far older than that, having started generating power in 1972. In terms of nuclear plants, that means it's in late middle age, not necessarily at the end of its life; the state had planned to keep it open for at least a couple decades more. However, the plant was discovered to be leaking tritium (a radioactive hydrogen isotope) into groundwater in January.

The radiation leakage -- judged non-harmful to locals so far -- wasn't the only strike against Entergy's plant. Under questioning about the leak, a plant manager told the state Public Service Board that the facility had no underground pipes -- a statement that turned out to be either a lie or frightening evidence of ignorance. Other mistakes have included a cooling tower collapse and dropped cask of spent fuel.

The New York Times quotes a Vermont Republican who supports the plant: "If the board of directors and management of Entergy were thoroughly infiltrated by antinuclear activists, I do not think they could have done a better job of destroying their own case." Although a House vote remains for the plant, it seems to be politically doomed in the state at this point.

Beyond Vermont, the case adds a new twist to the nuclear industry's fledgling renaissance, and at a particularly bad moment. Earlier this month, it had begun to look as if nuclear were gaining some momentum with a new ally in the form of President Obama, who added $36 billion in nuclear loan guarantees for new plants to his budget.

Nuclear power has struggled for decades to rebuild its image, and that seemed to be happening recently, with Republican support and a new advertising message as an emissions-free energy source. In Vermont, at least, the leak seems to be stoking old fears about irradiation, and new ones about aging nuclear facilities -- which at the moment, includes all 104 of the country's reactors.

It's unclear how Vermont would cope with losing its main power source; the resulting fallout might rekindle interest in the state's populace for having a running nuke. But that may not actually happen. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a Federal agency, is launching its own inspection, and will probably end up fighting Vermont to keep the site open.

They have until 2012, the date that Vermont Yankee's state licenses expire, to fight it out. In the meantime, the rest of the nuclear industry can brace for bad press.