SEABROOK, N.H. – Paul Gunter steps out of his Jeep in a near-empty parking lot off Seabrook’s Ocean Boulevard, unfolds his 6-foot-7-inch frame and tugs the bill of a well-worn cap against the sun. Behind him, anglers hang lines into Hampton Harbor from a nearby pier, and kayakers and swimmers play in the water. They take no notice of the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant, which looms from the other shore.
But Gunter notices, and has noticed for more than 40 years now. It was in 1976, at a picnic table near here, that he and a small band of like-minded citizens formed the Clamshell Alliance, one of the nation’s oldest and most active anti-nuclear groups.
The Seabrook power plant was just in the planning stages back then. But incidents at existing plants had raised alarms: In 1966, a blocked cooling system caused a partial fuel meltdown at the Fermi reactor in Michigan; 10 years later, a fire broke out at the Browns Ferry reactor in Alabama, started by a candle being used to check for fuel leaks.
All this as President Richard Nixon, in 1973, pledged to make the U.S. energy-independent by building 1,000 nuclear power plants – touted by proponents as a source of clean, inexpensive energy – by the year 2000.
Gunter and his associates mobilized. They named their movement for the environmentally sensitive marshes and clam beds that bordered the planned site of the Seabrook plant. They pledged to oppose all nuclear power in New England and, along the way, became a model for the mass nonviolent anti-nuke demonstrations that swept across the country.
The movement was successful. One Seabrook reactor was ultimately completed, but 10 years after its initially projected startup and at a $7 billion cost that bankrupted the public utility group behind the endeavor. A second planned reactor at Seabrook was never built.
Gunter is 67 now. In the U.S., the promise of nuclear power was never realized; barely 10 percent of the projected plants were ever built, and so far none has experienced the kind of catastrophic events seen at Chernobyl in Ukraine or Fukushima in Japan.
So far. For Gunter, those are the operative words. He’s now director of nuclear oversight for Beyond Nuclear, a national group that works to educate the public about the dangers of nuclear power and the benefits of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. And these days, he tries to get people to understand that the fallout of America’s nuclear plants is much more pervasive than a potential radiation leak.
Rather, that fallout includes long-term damage to the environment and safety risks posed by the tons of radioactive spent fuel left at reactor sites.
“We realized even then that nuclear power was going to be dirty, dangerous and expensive,” Gunter says as he squints toward Seabrook. “These are things we said back then, and the same holds true today.”
What it means for communities
Fifty years after the U.S. launched a bold plan to invest in nuclear power, most of the promises of clean, inexpensive energy have failed to materialize. Plants often cost far more than projected and took years longer to build – driving up rates for consumers. Many plants were never completed, instead becoming a debt utility companies passed on to ratepayers.
In New York state, the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant that has operated since 1970 in the town of Ontario, Wayne County, was recently earmarked for shutdown with much cheaper forms of energy such as natural gas making it hard to compete. Basically, nukes need more money than they now make in the wholesale market.
Then along came the governor’s plan to pump up renewables. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard, 50 percent of New York’s electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2030. Cash flow for producers of renewables such as wind, solar and nuclear will come from a monthly fee customers see on their electricity bill, not more than $2 for the average household, according to the governor. Barring success of lawsuits over the plan, Ginna’s future looks secure, at least through its current contract to 2029.
For the Rochester region’s more than 300,000 Rochester Gas & Electric customers, whether or not Ginna closes will have no effect on service. The $150 million Ginna Retirement Transmission Alternative Project (GRTA) now underway is upgrading the RG&E system to break free of reliance on Ginna. “When we finish this project, we will have the capacity to disconnect,” said John Carroll, spokesman for RG&E parent company Avangrid.
The project is expected to wrap up by the end of March 2017.
RG&E has been dependent on Ginna “as a critical clog,” Carroll said. GRTA will change that. RG&E will continue tapping into the power generated by the nuclear power facility in Wayne County, along with other sources in the mix such as natural gas, hydro-electric, wind and coal. But if the nuclear plant were to close, RG&E would experience no hiccups, and customers wouldn’t notice. A RG&E surcharge (about $2 a month for an average household) that customers have been paying due to Ginna power will go away over time, Carroll said.
However, all electricity customers statewide can look forward to a monthly charge due to the state’s Clean Energy Standard. The governor has said the charge won’t be more than $2 for an average household.
Reason to fear?
Meanwhile, the direst fears of anti-nuclear activists also have not played out. Although there are rashes of safety incidents, the most serious U.S. incident being the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island, there has never been the kind of catastrophe seen at the Chernobyl plant or, more recently, at the Fukushima reactor.
But skeptics such as Gunter say risks are still with us. As reactors age, they are more prone to accidents caused by worn-out parts. In some cases, operating licenses are being renewed far beyond a plant’s planned shelf life, meaning expensive upgrades and extra-vigilant maintenance – things not always tended to by strapped utilities.
Of even greater concern to the nuclear watchdogs: the vast and growing piles of spent nuclear fuel. There is still no known way to store used fuel long-term that guarantees it won’t leak during the tens of thousands of years some components remain radioactive. The 76,000 metric tons of dangerous nuclear waste that already has been generated now sits on plant sites across the country. To give that number perspective, if existing radioactive fuel assemblies were stacked end to end and side by side, they would stand more than two stories high and cover a football field.
And there is another impact – one that perhaps even the most ardent of anti-nuclear activists did not envision. Across the country, communities expanded and grew dependent on the nuclear plant in their backyards. Now, as many of those plants cut back or are decommissioned, economic vitality is gutted. Jobs and middle-class lifestyles disappear. Housing prices collapse. Tax bases dwindle, undermining everything from school budgets to road repairs.
Out of work
Russ Rosinski’s confidence in his professional future plummeted when he was laid off by Vermont Yankee in May, but he is determined to get back on track.
Dressed in a crisp khaki shirt with the logo of his new home-inspection business stitched above the pocket, Rosinski tries to maintain an upbeat attitude.
“Life goes on,” he says.
Rosinski, a senior plant manager for 15 years, purchased and fully renovated a house in Vernon in 2013, confident he would finish his career at Vermont Yankee since its owner, Entergy Corp., had recently renewed its operating license until 2032.
Six months after Rosinski moved into his new home with his wife, Hannah, and four daughters, Entergy announced it would close the plant in December 2014.
Rosinski was laid off just shy of his 40th birthday.
Rosinski ultimately decided to start his own business – Bird Dog Home Inspection – in an effort to stay near family and friends.
“It’s probably going to be very difficult to match my income, and it may not be attainable, but I hope to come close,” the former plant worker says.
Vermont Yankee went online in 1972 in Vernon, a tiny town of 2,100 known as “The Gateway to the Green Mountains.” The plant was built on 125 acres of pasture and woods on the shores of the Connecticut River, just across the street from the town’s elementary school.
Brattleboro native Kate O’Connor, who serves as that city’s Chamber of Commerce executive director as well as a select board member, says the nuclear plant has historically been a source of regional debate.
“There’s always been a love-hate relationship here with Vermont Yankee,” O’Connor says. “For people working there, it was their livelihood. Then there were the people who were opposed.
“We couldn’t talk about the plant at Thanksgiving or Christmas because my brother-in-law was working at the plant,” O’Connor says. “I think a lot of people were in that situation.”
Vernon prospered while Yankee was operating, with strong schools, a sizable municipal workforce and the ability to have its own police department. Yankee’s yearly payments to the town made up about half of its budget.
The plant provided townspeople with a means to support their families. In many cases, generations of families worked there.
“Our kids went to college to be engineers to work at Yankee,” says Patty O’Donnell, a former Vernon select board member, state representative and enthusiastic plant supporter.
Since Yankee’s closure, a host of town employees has been laid off, leaving Vernon’s small municipal building nearly vacant. The police department has been disbanded, and the town now relies on the county sheriff’s department.
“The market value of homes has gone down 25 percent since the plant closed,” O’Donnell says. “People are afraid.”
The real loss, however, is the exodus of plant workers who had been enthusiastic contributors to the community, O’Donnell says.
“They were on our boards, coached our sports and volunteered in town. We’ll re-energize the town because we’re Vermonters, but we’ll never replace people we lost.”
In the red
Across the country, other communities also have found it hard to recover from the loss of revenue when their nuclear plants close.
Zion, a small Illinois city on the shores of Lake Michigan, has been struggling since 1998, when the Zion Nuclear Power Station was shuttered because of an operator’s mistake that resulted in expensive mechanical failures. Thousands of jobs were lost, skilled plant workers moved away, small businesses collapsed and the town had to find a way to recoup $18 million in annual taxes previously paid by the plant. The burden shifted to property owners.
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