MONTPELIER -- Two weeks after winning a key legal battle to stay open, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant’s owners did what nuclear critics had been after them to do for decades and what the state had been demanding for years: announce the plant would close in late 2014.
The surprise announcement on Aug. 27 by Entergy Corp. was chosen as the top Vermont story of 2013 in a year-end poll of journalists working for Associated Press member newspapers and broadcasters in the state.
In the end, it was not marches on the plant gates by singing protesters or the state’s refusal to give Vermont Yankee the go-ahead to operate another 20 years that prompted the company’s decision; rather, it was low natural gas prices and the structure of New England’s wholesale power market making one of the nation’s oldest and smallest commercial reactors uneconomical to operate.
"The bottom line is the plant’s costs exceed its revenue as we look into the future," Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said as he and other company officials announced the closing. "The decision was solely based on economics."
The announcement came two weeks after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York largely upheld a lower-court decision blocking Vermont’s efforts to force the plant to close. Gov. Peter Shumlin called it "the right decision for Vermont and the right decision for Vermont’s clean energy future."
The challenges going forward will include shoring up Windham County’s economy after more than 600 well-paid employees at the plant are laid off, and planning and executing the plant’s decommissioning -- dismantling and removing its radioactive components and restoring the Vernon site.
The second leading story in the state, according to the votes of journalists who responded to the poll, concerned the rough start experienced by Vermont Health Connect, the web-based exchange through which many Vermonters were expected to purchase health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Since the Oct. 1 launch, Vermont Health Connect has been plagued by technical problems, with its website widely criticized for slowness, lost data and at least one security lapse that led to allegations that Mark Larson, commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access, made misleading statements when questioned about it in a legislative committee hearing.
Larson has apologized repeatedly. "I failed to disclose this in answer to questioning because it did not occur to me at the time that it was responsive," he said in November.
Other top Vermont stories:
3. The debate over whether Vermont should welcome F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard base at the Burlington International Airport. The Air Force announced Dec. 3 that Vermont will get 18 of the planes by 2020, while opponents have promised to sue to block the deployment.
4. The guilty plea in federal court that enabled Michael Jacques, 47, of Randolph, to avoid the death penalty in the 2008 kidnapping, sexual assault and killing of his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett.
5. A tie between Vermont’s enactment of a law allowing physicians to give lethal medication to terminally ill patients who request it; and the guilty plea and prison term given to former Vermont State Police Sgt. James Deeghan for falsifying his time sheets.
7. IBM’s decision in early summer to lay off hundreds of workers at its Vermont facilities as part of a national reduction in force. The company in recent years has tried to keep specific layoff numbers secret, but with state officials applying pressure for the number to be made public, dropped its objections to releasing it. The state issued the announcement July 18; 419 workers lost their jobs.
8. The story of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s bargain-basement land purchase from his East Montpelier neighbor Jeremy Dodge. Shumlin came under fire from critics who complained he used his skills as a longtime real estate investor to take advantage of a man who was down on his luck. Shumlin later struck a deal with Dodge to return his property to him.
9. The debate over Vermont Gas’ planned natural gas pipeline through Addison County. The company says it is bringing low-cost energy to Middlebury, to the International Paper plant in Ticonderoga, N.Y., and eventually, it hopes, to Rutland. Critics have been fighting the project, in part by invoking the national debate over hydraulic fracturing as a method of extracting gas from the earth.
10. Concerns voiced by police departments in Vermont that the state is seeing a sharp rise in the use of heroin. Several responses were planned or tried, including passage of a new law allowing friends and family members of addicts to keep on hand a prescription antidote to be used when someone overdoses on the drug.