By chance, on a family ski-and-snowboarding trip to northeastern Vermont last week, we happened Thursday evening on a very old, very beat-up green Pontiac with the Greenpeace logo affixed. Why, I naturally wondered, would the well-known environmental organization be using a gas-guzzling, pollutant-spewing clunker to conduct its local business? It turned out on closer inspection that the car was a nice little piece of agit-prop. Its purpose was to ask, as pictures and text on parts of the car made plain, why you would want to operate a 1972 nuclear power plant when you never would dream of driving a 1972 car. As it happens, yesterday the Vermont state senate voted to end operation of Vermont Yankee, one of the nation's oldest nuclear power plants, after 2012.
The decision represents an ironic counterpoint to Obama's highly publicized granting of Federal loan guarantees for what will be the first new nuclear power plant project initiated in the United States in decades. Though local factors played a big role in Vermont's decision--mismanagement and misstatements by the nuclear operator, not to mention the state's emphatic environmentalist and left-liberal political complexion--it may nonetheless point to a disconcerting trend. With most nuclear power plants in the advanced industrial countries approaching the end of their intended 40-year lifetimes, even if most of them receive 20-year extensions, some will surely be shut down. And it may well be that the number shut down will exceed in the next decade the number of new plants brought into operation.
In the fall issue of Daedalus devoted to the global nuclear future, Princeton University's Harold A. Feiveson, pointedly reminded readers that world nuclear electricity generation actually decreased 2 percent in 2007--rather the opposite of a renaissance. Chatting with him in his office yesterday, I speculated that we may see a real nuclear revival only in the 2020s; Feiveson said he thought it may be more like 2050.
The case for continuing to run the 1972 Vermont Yankee plant was radically undermined by recent tritium leaks at the plant, the collapse of a plant cooling tower three years ago, and a pattern of misstatements by company officials, some of whom have been penalized. "If the board of directors and management of [operator] Entergy were thoroughly infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not think they could have done a better job of destroying their own case," said a state senator supporting the plant, according to The New York Times.
Last week in Burlington, it was too dark and snowy to adequately photograph. But click here and scroll down for a glimpse of Greenpeace's beat-up 1972 Pontiac.