What Can the History of Nuclear Power Teach Us About Whether Vermont Yankee Should Operate After 2012?

Two lessons can be taken from the history of the nuclear power industry. First, the 103 reactors now operating at 65 locations around the United States should be closed immediately. Second, ordinary people, acting together, can close existing nuclear power plants, and stop new ones from being built.

The nuclear power industry was created by the federal government in the mid-1950s. The technology required to use nuclear power to generate electricity was invented by the same government scientists who had invented the first nuclear bombs, which killed more than 100,000 people in World War II. (Many of these scientists worked for universities and private companies like Monsanto and Union Carbide, which did the work under contract with the government.) (1) (Throughout this article, the numbers in parenthesis are footnotes; see the list of sources at the end of this article.)

Anti-nuclear march, Brattleboro, 2008. photo by Eesha Williams (click photo to enlarge)



In 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, which created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The AEC oversaw both nuclear weapons – previously under the control of the army -- and nuclear energy programs. As a result, Duffy argues, the secretiveness that one would expect of a military nuclear weapons program also kept the public from learning about civilian nuclear power for the first two decades that the technology existed. During this time, the federal government spent millions of taxpayer dollars doing the research that would later make the nuclear power industry possible. There was little or no public opposition to nuclear power, because its potential problems, such as safety and nuclear waste management, were kept secret. (2)

In 1946, when Congress transferred all nuclear programs from the army to the AEC, “more then 2,000 military personnel, 4,000 government employees, and 38,000 contractor employees were involved” with the programs. (3)

In 1949, the Soviet Union became the first country besides the U.S. to detonate a nuclear bomb. Soon after that, Congressman Chet Holifield said, "We cannot be indifferent to the enormous psychological advantage that the Soviets would gain if they demonstrated to a tense and divided world the ability to put the atom to work in peacetime civilian pursuits. The United States will not take second place in the contest." (4)

At this time, there were no American companies interested in building nuclear power plants. Power companies considered coal power plants to be a better investment. And experts were predicting minimal increases in demand for electricity in the U.S. (5)

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 effectively created the nuclear power industry. The government provided the industry with millions of dollars of free research, heavily subsidized fuel, discounted waste disposal, tax breaks, and, perhaps most significantly, taxpayer subsidized insurance in case of an accident. The insurance was provided by the Price Anderson Act of 1957. Congress has renewed the Act approximately once every ten years and it’s still in effect. (6)


This photo shows protesters at the Entergy office in Brattleboro at 6 a.m. on March 5, 2007. photo by Eesha Williams


A 1982 study performed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for Congress predicted that a serious accident at the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City would kill 50,000 people and result in 100,000 “radiation injuries” and $300 billion in property damage. (7)

If a plane hit the so-called “spent fuel pool” (the water-filled nuclear waste storage area) at a nuclear power plant, a catastrophic nuclear emergency could ensue, according to a 2004 report by the National Academies of Science. (8) On September 11, 2001 one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center had minutes earlier flown almost directly above the Indian Point plant. (9)

Fear of the government getting into the business of electricity generation prompted private corporations to build nuclear power plants. (10) In 1957, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Lewis Strauss, said, "It is the Commission’s policy to give the industry the opportunity to undertake the construction of power reactors. However, if industry does not, within a reasonable period of time, undertake to build the type of reactors which are considered promising, the Commission will take steps to build the reactors at its own initiative." (11)

The federal government had spent $1.2 billion on developing nuclear reactor technology by 1962, more than double the amount the industry spent. (12) In the mid-1960s, less than 1 percent of the electricity used in the US came from nuclear power. In 2000, nuclear power reached its peak, providing 20 percent of US electricity. As of 2005, that had declined to 19 percent. (13)

There were a large number of people who worked for the nuclear power industry and who therefore had a direct financial incentive to lobby for government subsidies for the industry. According to Nuclear Politics in America a book by professor Robert Duffy, “by the early 1970s the AEC had contracts with 538 corporations, and 223 colleges and universities… private firms with AEC contracts employed approximately 125,000 workers.” (14)

In the mid-1980s, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (successor to the Atomic Energy Commission), whose members were appointed by President Reagan, changed its rules to allow new nuclear power plants to open even when state and local officials said there would be no way for people near the plants to evacuate in case of an emergency. Then-governor Mario Cuomo of New York called the change “absurd.” (15)

President Jimmy Carter’s Department of Energy had agreed in 1977 to eventually take all the industry’s “high-level” nuclear waste. It wasn’t until 1987 that Congress decided where the federal government would dump the nuclear waste that Carter had offered to take: Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Duffy matter-of-factly writes that, while it was being debated, this legislation was known as the “screw Nevada bill.” (16)

The nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain still has not opened. The U.S. Department of Energy estimated in 2001 that the total cost of the dump would be about $58 billion. (17) The waste was still being stored around the nation near the 103 reactors where it had been created.

In 1995 the National Academies of Science issued a report that said nuclear waste kept at Yucca could still be deadly in 1 million years. (18) During that time, the waste will need to be watched 24 hours a day by heavily armed guards.

The Department of Energy under President Reagan and the first President Bush cut funding for renewable (like solar and wind) energy programs by 94 percent during the decade of the 1980s and cut funding for energy efficiency programs by 91 percent between 1981 and 1987. At the same time, funding for nuclear programs “remained largely intact.” (19)

Spending one dollar on energy efficiency programs like Efficiency Vermont saves approximately three times as much energy as spending one dollar on nuclear power generates. The dollar spent on energy efficiency also creates more jobs than the dollar spent on nuclear. (20)

In other words, if New Englanders took the money we now give to Entergy for electricity from Vermont Yankee and instead spent it on programs like Efficiency Vermont, the Vermont Yankee plant could be closed, our electricity bills would go down, and there would be a net increase in jobs. Wind power is cheaper than nuclear power. Wind power and energy efficiency programs are at least twice as cost effective as nuclear power at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because of the fossil fuel emissions caused by construction of nuclear power plants, mining and transporting nuclear fuel, and transporting, guarding and storing nuclear waste. Nuclear power causes global warming. (21)

[UPDATE (2/20/2011): President Barack Obama announced that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump will not open. This means that the nation's nuclear waste will be stored in steel and concrete "casks" near the reactors where it was created. The casks last 100 years. When they're replaced, the old casks will themselves be nuclear waste.]

Federal government spending for research and development, 1974 - 2005 (in 2005 dollars)(22):

nuclear power - $48 billion
fossil fuels - $20 billion
renewable energy - $12 billion
energy efficiency - $12 billion

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union in 1986 has killed or will kill (by cancer) an estimated 9,000 people, according to a United Nations report. (23)

[UPDATE 4/23/2011: Karl Grossman is a journalism professor at the State University of New York. In a March 12, 2011 post on his blog www.karlgrossman.blogspot.com Grossman wrote: "The radioactive releases in the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident affected the entire northern hemisphere, as a book published last year by the New York Academy of Sciences documents. And 'Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,' authored by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, Dr. Vassily Nesterenko, and Dr. Alexey Nesterenko, finds that medical records between 1986, the year of the accident, and 2004 reflect 985,000 deaths as a result of the radioactivity released." The current nuclear crisis in Japan is expected to kill about 1 million people, Grossman told the Valley Post.]

On May 2, 1977 police arrested 1,414 protesters at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. In June 1978, some 12,000 people attended a protest at Seabrook. In August 1978, almost 500 people were arrested for protesting at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. In May 1979, in Washington, DC, about 70,000 people, including the governor of California, attended a march and rally against nuclear power. On June 2, 1979 about 500 people were arrested for protesting construction of the Black Fox nuclear power plant in Oklahoma. The next day, 15,000 people attended a rally at the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island, NY; about 600 were arrested. On June 30, 1979 about 38,000 people attended a protest rally at Diablo Canyon. On August 23, 1979 in New York City about 200,000 people attended a rally against nuclear power. On September 23, 1979 about 167 protesters were arrested at Vermont Yankee. On June 22, 1980 about 15,000 people attended a protest near the San Onofre nuclear power plant in California. (24)

No new nuclear power plants have been ordered in the U.S. since 1978.

Protests preceded the shut down of the Shoreham, Yankee Atomic, Millstone I, Rancho Seco, and Maine Yankee nuclear power plants. A 2007 article in the Journal of American History did not hesitate to give protesters credit for the decline of the nuclear power industry: “The protestors lost their battle [when Diablo Canyon opened in 1984], but in a sense they won the larger war, for nuclear plant construction ended across the country in 1986.” (25)

The NRC has for years been widely seen as a puppet for the industry (see, for example, the 1988 report, “NRC coziness with industry: Nuclear Regulatory Commission fails to maintain arms length relationship with the nuclear industry: an investigative report” by the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives).

Former federal prosecutor and current New York City attorney Kenneth McCallion writes in his 1995 book Shoreham and the Rise and Fall of the Nuclear Power Industry that “James Asselstine, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has concluded that there is at least a 45 percent chance of a meltdown of a nuclear reactor somewhere in the United States in the next 20 years.” (26)

Energy efficiency programs emphasize education to encourage people to hire local contractors to improve insulation and weather-stripping in their homes. They partially subsidize the cost of more efficient light bulbs, refrigerators, and other appliances (which results in only slightly higher profits for appliance makers). So less money is spent on lobbying and public relations for energy efficiency programs than for nuclear power.



(1) Robert J. Duffy, Nuclear Politics in America (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997), p. 20, 22

(2) Ibid., p. 22

(3) Ibid., p. 24

(4) Ibid., p. 32

(5) Ibid., p. 33

(6) Ibid., p. 34, 39

(7) “Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences (CRAC 2)” study prepared by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, Nov. 1, 1982, cited in Elizabeth Kolbert, “Indian Point Blank” The New Yorker , March 3, 2003, p. 36

(8) Published online at www.nature.com on April 7, 2005 by the journal Nature , “Nuclear plants warned of terrorist fire hazard” by Geoff Brumfiel

(9) Elizabeth Kolbert, “Indian Point Blank,” The New Yorker , March 3, 2003, p. 36

(10) Robert J. Duffy, Nuclear Politics in America (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997), p. 43

(11) Ibid., p. 43

(12) Ibid., p. 43

(13) Ibid., p. 44, 45, 62

(14) Ibid., p. 53

(15) Ibid., p. 207

(16) Ibid., p. 187

(17) Steve Tetreault, “Railroad Cost Estimates for Yucca Top $3 Billion,” Las Vegas Review-Journal , July 24, 2007

(18) National Academies of Science, Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1995)

(19) Robert J. Duffy, Nuclear Politics in America (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1997), p. 194-195

(20) Amory B. Lovins, “Viewpoint,” Nuclear Engineering International , Dec. 2005, p. 45, 48; data on jobs is from an interview with David Goldstein, director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council

(21) Ibid

(22) “Government Energy Technology R&D Budgets” published by the International Energy Agency at www.iea.org/RDD/TableViewer/tableView.aspx, Accessed 9/9/07

(23) unsigned report, “The Chernobyl Disaster,” published by BBC News at news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/guides/456900/456957/html/nn4page1.stm , Accessed 10/1/07

(24) Victoria L. Daubert and Sue Ellen Moran, Origins, Goals, and Tactics of the U.S. Anti-Nuclear Protest Movement (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1985), pp. 48-90

(25) Robert W. Righter, book review, Journal of American History, June 2007

(26) Kenneth McCallion, Shoreham and the Rise and Fall of the Nuclear Power Industry (Westport: Praeger, 1995)


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