Next week, if all goes as planned, the 42-year-old nuclear reactor at the Vermont Yankee generating station will be shut down for the last time. The steam turbine at the plant, which at its peak could make enough electricity for about half a million homes with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions, will grind to a halt.
Vermont Yankee, in the river town of Vernon near the Massachusetts border, had been the target of years of protests and lawsuits by state officials, environmentalists and others concerned about safety and radioactive waste.
But in the end, the antinuclear movement didn’t kill the plant. Economics did.
To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.
But as Vermont Yankee illustrates, the nuclear industry in the United States is having trouble maintaining the status quo, much less expanding. “It’s going nowhere quickly,” said Sharon Squassoni, who studies energy and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Overseas, the outlook is not much better.
All of this is encouraging to opponents of nuclear power, who are concerned about the costs, the potential for a major accident — despite the industry’s relatively good safety record — and the hazards of storing spent fuel.
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“These things are extremely expensive and prone to cost overruns,” said Grant Smith, the senior energy policy analyst with the Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts research group that advocates solutions to climate change. “The high-level nuclear waste issue has never been addressed. You’re talking about indefinite costs into the future.” But the outlook for nuclear power dismays the industry and its supporters, including some environmentalists, who point out that replacing the lost electricity from Vermont Yankee and the other recently closed reactors with power from natural gas could result in the release of as much carbon dioxide as is produced yearly by two million cars or more.
But Peter A. Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that in discussions of adding more nuclear power to help curb emissions and fight climate change, the issue of safety takes on a new dimension.
“You can’t rationally bet a big part of your climate change abatement plan on a technology that you may suddenly find you don’t want to use anymore,” Mr. Bradford said. A major accident, for example, might force the entire industry to shut down, at least temporarily. “There’s no other low-carbon alternative with the potential to develop a large hole like that.”