Anti-Nuclear Campaigns Gain Steam as Plant Closures Continue

From the October 2013 PNL #828

by Jessica Azulay and Linda Destefano

Two thousand thirteen might go down in the history books as the year activists finally turned the tide against the nuclear power industry. It may also go down as the beginning of one of nuclear power’s most dangerous eras.

In the 1970s, anti-nuclear activists fought the industry to a virtual stalemate. Between 1979 and 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) didn’t issue a single license for a new nuclear power plant. But victories against existing plants were rare. Fewer than ten were shut down permanently between 1980 and 2012.


Image: SAGE Alliance

Fast forward to today, and the victories just keep coming. First came the announced closure of the Kewaunee reactor in Wisconsin. Then came Crystal River in Florida, followed by San Onofre in California. The icing on the cake was the August 27 announcement by Entergy Corporation that it would permanently shut down the Vermont Yankee reactor in late 2014, handing a sweet and long-awaited victory to activists who had built a powerful campaign against it. This year has also seen the cancellation of plans to increase power generating capacity at five reactors and the canning of plans to build a two-reactor unit in Levy County, Florida.


So, what’s happening to all these nukes? The nuclear industry is getting hit by age-related and costly repairs, increased regulation after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, escalating activism, and (probably most importantly) a bad financial climate. Profits are being squeezed, and in some cases, once lucrative reactors aren’t able to turn a profit at all.

Kewaunee closed for purely economic reasons. San Onofre and Crystal River closed because they were shut down for costly repairs, and the companies operating them determined they weren’t worth fixing. Both were helped along by anti-nuclear activists who kept heat on the NRC and the nuclear operators to prevent the reactors from restarting. The Vermont Yankee closure resulted from a mixture of activism and economics. The plant’s operators faced projected financial losses compounded by the state government’s determination to shut down the plant, thanks to unrelenting organizing and public pressure on state policy makers.

There are strategic lessons for anti-nuclear activists in these closures, as well as hopes that the victories will keep coming. Entergy’s FitzPatrick reactor here in Central New York has repeatedly been pointed out by financial analysts as being particularly vulnerable. The plant, located in Oswego, is expected to see financial deficits for the foreseeable future. As the only Fukushima-style reactor in the US without an installed hardened vent, FitzPatrick may see higher than average costs from post-Fukushima regulations. In recent months, FitzPatrick has become increasingly unreliable and unsafe due to a variety of age-related equipment failures, most notably the plant’s main condenser, which needs a costly replacement.

The Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE) is pushing on multiple fronts to shut down FitzPatrick. AGREE, headquartered in Syracuse, is a statewide coalition that includes the Syracuse Peace Council, Peace Action, the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter and other environmental groups. AGREE has filed multiple petitions with the NRC in an effort to get the plant shut down for safety violations, or at the very least to increase regulatory oversight of the reactor. AGREE is also meeting with New York State policy makers to preempt any efforts by the company to seek a financial bailout. To sign a petition against a potential nuclear bailout see AGREE is also promoting renewable energy planning on the state level in an effort to continue the economic squeeze on nuke plants, improve the environment, and make sure nuclear plants don’t get replaced with fossil fuels (like natural gas).

The economic decline of the nuclear industry is something for environmentalists to celebrate, but it is also something to fear. When reactors get into financial trouble, they may be at their most accident-prone. Economic distress creates an incentive for the nuclear owners to put off repairs and cut the workforce. Nuclear watchdogs are particularly worried about safety at Vermont Yankee, which Entergy intends to operate until late 2014, a period expected to be marked by worker attrition and reluctance to put any money into maintenance. AGREE has joined activists in Vermont and Massachusetts in a groundbreaking petition to demand that the NRC enforce its “financial qualifications” regulation and shut down plants that aren’t making enough money to pay for necessary operating costs. The petition focuses on Entergy’s operations at FitzPatrick, Pilgrim (in Massachusetts) and Vermont Yankee.

Meanwhile, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear station provides a reminder of the real costs and dangers of nuclear power. TEPCO, the company that owns the devastated reactors at Fukushima, has admitted that thousands of tons of radioactive water has leaked or been dumped into the Pacific Ocean. It remains to be seen whether the company and the Japanese government can get the leaks under control. 

Jessica is the staff organizer for Alliance for a Green Economy and for the Syracuse Peace Council. Linda represents the Atlantic Chapter for the Sierra Club in the alliance. To get involved in AGREE’s efforts contact Jessica: