After a 42-year run, the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor stopped sending electricity into the region’s grid on Monday.
The reactor’s shutdown has implications for Maine’s electric ratepayers since it accelerates New England’s growing dependence on a single source — natural gas — for electricity, a phenomenon that has meant higher electricity prices this winter. And as attention shifts to the long decommissioning process that lies ahead at the reactor site in Vernon, Vermont, the shutdown also highlights the failure of the federal government to follow through with a permanent solution for storage of nuclear waste.
The operator of New England’s electric grid says the region can handle the shutdown of the 600-megawatt reactor; a combination of power from other plants and energy efficiency measures can make up the difference.
Nuclear energy generated by New England’s five nuclear reactors, including Vermont Yankee, has consistently accounted for about a third of New England’s electricity supply. The portion generated from natural gas, meanwhile, has skyrocketed with the increasing availability and generally low price of the fuel. Natural gas accounted for 46 percent of the region’s electricity in 2013, up from 15 percent in 2000, according to ISO New England, the organization that oversees the New England power grid.
Vermont Yankee’s closure means New England’s dependence on natural gas for electricity will continue to grow. And the reactor is closing just as other power plants in the region — powered by coal and oil — are either shutting down or preparing to shut down, compounding the growing dependence on gas.
More gas-powered electricity means lower prices for consumers when the fuel is readily available and cheap, but just the opposite during the winter months when heating-related demand for gas is greater and its availability for electricity generation is more limited.
So, while New England’s electric grid can sustain the closure of one major nuclear source, there’s cause for concern as more plants close absent other measures to diversify the region’s electricity mix and promote efficiency. Aside from the planned closures of coal- and oil-fired power plants, the website Inside Climate News lists three of New England’s four remaining nuclear reactors as at risk of closure due to the need for potentially unaffordable upgrades and a regional electricity market whose economics favor natural gas.
“Going forward, we are concerned about the impact of [losing] non-natural-gas-fired generation in the region,” ISO New England spokeswoman Marcia Blomberg told The Boston Globe.
With the closure of a nuclear reactor, attention at Vermont Yankee now shifts to what becomes of a radioactive property with radioactive waste. Decommissioning — a process that allows for the reduction of residual radioactivity over time — can take six decades and, in Vermont Yankee’s case, could cost $1.24 billion. It will likely be 2075 before the nuclear reactor site is released for new uses.
In the meantime, Vermont Yankee will join its counterpart in Maine, Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, which closed in 1996, as a decommissioning nuclear site that stores hundreds of spent fuel assemblies in dry casks on its property. That’s supposedly a temporary storage solution. Under a 1982 law, it’s the responsibility of the federal government to remove that spent, radioactive fuel and haul it to a permanent, national waste repository. But there’s little hope the federal government will act on that responsibility anytime soon.
A permanent repository was originally supposed to be open by 1998, but federal officials didn’t settle on a site until 2002 — Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. Even though President George W. Bush signed a law designating the site as the nation’s nuclear waste repository, President Barack Obama’s administration has abandoned the Yucca Mountain plans.
Meanwhile, residents of Maine and now Vermont live amid the legacy of a power source that can’t be hidden — even when it’s defunct.