Vermont Yankee’s Contribution to Environmental History

There’s a historical backstory to the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant late last year, which got no mention in the general accounts of the venerable reactor’s demise. The plant played a key role in the 1960s in the evolving issue of “thermal pollution” and once-through cooling of large power plants, a topic still alive.

As nuclear historian J. Samuel Walker lays out in his excellent 1993 history of the evolution of the regulation of civilian nuclear power in the U.S. – “Containing the Atom” – the Atomic Energy Commission was responsible for both promoting and licensing the early nuclear power plants in the U.S. Indeed, most nuclear plants that actually got built won construction permits from the AEC, not its regulatory successor, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In the 1960s, the nascent environmental movement was beginning to raise questions about thermal pollution and whether once-through cooling of large thermal energy plants was wise. It was one of the first popular environmental issues to challenge nuclear power.

Until Vermont Yankee appeared on the scene, thermal pollution was largely an intellectual and theoretical issue pondered and argued over by scientists and engineers. That changed in 1966. As Walker describes, in November of that year, a consortium 10 New England utilities applied to the AEC for a license to build a 514-MW nuclear unit on the Connecticut River near Vernon, Vt., smack up against the New Hampshire and Massachusetts borders.

Officials in the three states were troubled about the prospect of the plant destroying fish and riverine habitat. Massachusetts Republican Attorney General Elliot Richardson (later a key figure in the Watergate scandal) said, “Vermont will receive a million-dollar injection into its economy. Massachusetts will receive hot water.” All three states opposed the construction permit at the AEC.

The plant owners initially fought the states, but soon agreed to an “open cycle” cooling system, circulating cooling water through an array of mechanical cooling cells before returning the water to the river. The states were still unhappy and the issue remained alive when the AEC granted the construction permit in December of 1967.


Vermont Yankee

Vermont Yankee

Then Congress got involved. Sen. Edward Muskie, a Maine Democrat and prominent advocate of environmental causes, protested the AEC’s permit for Vermont Yankee. Muskie held high-profile hearings in Montpelier, Vt., in February 1968. While Muskie and the states hammered the AEC, the U.S. Justice Department backed the AEC’s decision not to order closed-cycle cooling. The states sued and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston agreed with the AEC, although expressing, as Walker said, “an obvious lack of enthusiasm” for their position.

The AEC won in court, the plant got built and operated, amidst constant activist protests, until last year. But the issue of thermal pollution never went away. Subsequently, almost all large steam-electric power plants – coal, nuclear, and gas – got built with large closed-cycle cooling towers.

In Vermont, environmental and anti-nuclear groups in the region continued to assail the plant for heating the river. In 2007, one of the open cycle cooling cells – made of wood, plastic, and metal – collapsed, which opponents of the plant attempted to link to a 20% uprating of the plant’s power output 18 months earlier. The operator said the collapse was the result of the “degradation” of the 4×4 inch posts that were the structural support for the cooling system.

Although most subsequent plants turned to closed-cycle cooling, the issue has remained alive for decades because existing generating plants with once-through cooling remained using their cooling technology. Last May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued final rules that will make it difficult for any existing power plant that uses once-through cooling to continue the practice. That’s one of the legacies of the Vermont Yankee nuclear generating plant.