Bady: What killed the beast?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bob Bady, who is a founding member of the Safe and Green Campaign, a group he has worked with for the past seven years to muster the voices of residents in the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant’s evacuation zone.

The 1933 movie “King Kong” ends with a message that’s resonant when pondering what brought Entergy to decide to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power reactor next year. King Kong escapes from his captors and, clutching Ann Darrow, climbs to the top of New York’s Empire State Building. After being raked with bullets from delicate biplanes, the great ape plummets 1,450 odd feet to the street below. As a crowd gathers around the huge dead hulk, Kong’s captor, Denham, makes his way to the police barricade. The police officer says, “the airplanes got him.” The film ends with Denham’s famous reply, “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes … it was Beauty killed the Beast.”

Yes, it was economics that finally got Vermont Yankee – low wholesale electric prices, high production costs, etc. But, as with King Kong, there’s a backstory. The ultimate goal of a large corporation such as Entergy is to make money. Its growth or demise is about profit. The backstory is what actually prevented Vermont Yankee from making enough profit to continue to operate for decades to come.

Certainly cheaper natural gas was a significant factor, as was an old plant that would require significant maintenance in the coming years. Pending costly federally mandated safety improvements, precipitated by the Fukushima disaster, also loomed.

Acts 74 and 160 became problems because the anti nuke environmental community in Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire and western Massachusetts worked hard, long and intelligently to rally public opinion, and educate the Vermont Legislature.

 

The tipping point, however, the thing that might have really sealed Vermont Yankee’s fate, was grassroots activism. In 2005 and 2006, when Act 74 and 160 were passed in the Vermont Legislature, both bills were enthusiastically supported by the entire legislative body, the Republican governor, Jim Douglas, and Entergy itself. Act 74 provided Entergy with necessary spent fuel onsite storage capabilities to continue operations. Act 160 gave the Legislature power over issuing a certificate of public good, state approval necessary for operation after 2012. In the Montpelier environment of seven or eight years ago it didn’t seem possible to Entergy and its supporters that these legislative acts would ever be a problem. But they did become a big expensive problem.

Acts 74 and 160 became problems because the anti nuke environmental community in Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire and western Massachusetts worked hard, long and intelligently to rally public opinion, and educate the Vermont Legislature. Acts 74 and 160 became problems because Entergy underestimated the nature of Vermont’s uniquely accessible part-time citizen legislature. Entergy also never anticipated that in a narrow 2010 gubernatorial election victory a new governor would be propelled into office, to a significant extent by promising to close Vermont Yankee.

Entergy’s income was first impacted when, by late 2010 and early 2011, its reputation had become so damaged by its own misdeeds, brought to the spotlight by activists, that Vermont electric utilities played hardball in contract negotiations. As a result, no deal emerged between Vermont Yankee and Vermont utilities, and Entergy was left to sell its product on the “spot” market, where prices had dropped because of cheaper natural gas.

Finally, while Entergy prevailed in its lawsuit against the state to preempt Acts 160 and 74 in federal court, that victory came at a high cost, measured in its corporate lifeblood – money, as they spent millions of dollars in lobbying costs, legal fees and publicity campaigns.

As with King Kong’s demise, economic bullets pierced Entergy’s flesh. But it was people power that raised the stakes and greatly increased the costs. The power of the people is beautiful. Oh, no, it wasn’t just economics … beauty killed the beast.

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