Vermont Senate Votes to Close Nuclear Plant

February 24, 2010

New York Times

MONTPELIER, Vt. – In an unusual state foray into nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 Wednesday to block a license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials and other problems.

Unless the chamber reverses itself, it would be the first time in more than 20 years that the public or its representatives decided to close a reactor.

The vote came barely over a week after President Obama declared a new era of rebirth for the nation’s nuclear industry, announcing federal loan guarantees of $8.3 billion to assure the construction of a twin-reactor plant near Augusta, Ga.

Vermont Yankee’s recent troubles are viewed by some as a challenge to arguments that reactors are clean, well run and worth the enormous investment involved in building and operating them.

In a small, ornate chamber packed with plant opponents, the state lawmakers voiced frustration over recent leaks of radioactive tritium at the 38-year-old plant as well as the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007 and inaccurate testimony by the plant’s owner, the Louisiana-based nuclear operator Entergy. Plant officials had testified under oath that there were no underground pipes at Vermont Yankee that could leak tritium, although there were.

Experts tracking the leaks have found no evidence that the substance has entered the drinking supply or harmed a human being.

Lawmakers at Wednesday’s session also voiced doubts that Entergy would have enough money to decommission the plant in view of the costly tritium leak and other troubles.

"They’ve been their own worst enemy," said Robert Starr, a Democrat from the town of North Troy, although he proposed sending the bill for study to another committee. That vote failed 24 to 6.

In the decisive vote, senators defeated a resolution that would have authorized the state to issue a certificate of "public good," which would be necessary to keep Vermont Yankee operating.

Under Vermont law, any extension of the plant’s license beyond 2012 would have to be approved by both houses. So unless the Senate reverses itself and the House also approves an extension, the plant would have to close by March of that year.

The controversy in Vermont is viewed with deep apprehension and some anger by the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, which normally calls the shots on plant safety issues, has been poised to give the plant another 20 years. Commission officials have declined to comment on Vermont’s action. The last time a reactor in the United States was closed by a vote of the public or its representatives was in June 1989, when the voters of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District decided to shut the Rancho Seco reactor. The issues in that case were mostly economic; the plant kept breaking down, forcing the district to buy electricity from neighbors, and had been shut from December, 1985 to early 1988 for repairs.

Popular referendums to close reactors have been brought in several states but always failed. But several old reactors – including Maine Yankee, in Wiscasset, Me., Connecticut Yankee, in Haddam Neck, and Yankee Rowe, in Rowe, Mass., were closed by their owners because they had expensive safety problems and were not very profitable. The Yankee plants were of different designs but were owned by overlapping partnerships of New England utilities.

Commissioned in August 1966, and given its operating license in March 1972, Vermont Yankee is one of the older plants in the American inventory of 104 power reactors. The oldest still running is Oyster Creek, near Toms River, N.J., which is of a very similar design and opened in December, 1969.

It recently won a 20-year extension of its initial 40-year license although, to the indignation of its opponents, plant owners announced a few days after the renewal that it also was leaking tritium.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to have sole authority to regulate safety issues under a 56-year-old federal law that was intended to encourage the growth of civilian use of nuclear power, Entergy gave the state of Vermont a opening in 2004 when it bought the plant from a group of local utilities.

It agreed in a memorandum of understanding that the state’s "certificate of public good," a state-issued permit that all power plants must have, would expire with the original 40-year license and that another certificate would be required.

Then the plant went through a series of problems, including the collapse of the cooling tower in August 2007. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said the three-story wooden tower, one of several, was not required for the safe shutdown of the plant and that its collapse was not a safety failure, but the distinction did little to buff the plant’s image.

In a move that has also deepened unease, Entergy has been trying to spin off the reactor and five others, including the Indian Point reactors in New York, into a new company that would borrow money to pay back Entergy and sell stock on Wall Street. Many opponents in Vermont worry that this would allow Entergy, based in New Orleans, to avoid legal liability for any problems at the plants and that a spinoff could be detrimental to the state.

"It’s a dump job," said Nancy Braus of Putney, a plant opponent who watched the Senate action from a corner of the chamber. She pointed out that the estimates of the cost of decommissioning the plant run over $1 billion, roughly the amount of the entire annual state budget, and that Entergy has only about $450 million on hand.

The tritium leak is an especially sore point. While there is no evidence that it has entered the drinking water or given any human being a dose of radiation, legislators were dismayed that plant officials had testified that there were no underground pipes at Vermont Yankee that the substance could escape from.

Before Senate debate began Wednesday morning, Entergy said it had instructed a law firm to examine the misstatements under oath and had concluded that officials had not intended to deceive the state. It said that communications had "led to misunderstandings" and had been taken out of context. The result, the company said, was that "the responses were incomplete and misleading."

Curt Hebert, a spokesman for the company, said Entergy had put five senior employees on administrative leave and that "all the discipline taken had financial consequences for the employees involved."

Mr. Hebert acknowledged in an interview that the leaks, the cooling tower collapse and other problems had been "almost a perfect storm" for the plant.

Adding to the uncertainty, all the members of Vermont’s Senate and House face re-election in the fall, and there will be a new governor next year as well.

Some plant supporters have raised the possibility of a lawsuit should the two houses decline to extend Vermont Yankee’s operating license next year.

But Christopher M. Kilian, director of the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation, said that because of the structure of the law, requiring affirmative action of both houses for the plant to stay open, a suit would face difficult hurdles.

"There will not be an act of the legislature for anyone to challenge," he said.

Fair Use Notice
This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. SEED Coalition is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability, human rights, economic democracy and social justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a “fair use” of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond “fair use”, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.