The Latest on Vermont Yankee

An Update from VPIRG Director, Paul Burns, on Friday, March 16

As you know, nearly two months ago Judge Garvan Murtha handed Vermonters a significant defeat when he ruled that state legislators had exceeded their authority to regulate the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.  In light of this decision and as we approach the date that VY should be retired for good – March 21, 2012 – there are five points I wanted to share on VPIRG’s related activities.

First, we support the Attorney General’s decision to appeal Judge Murtha’s decision.  This appeal will be heard by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.  There’s no telling when this case will be heard, but we plan to defend the state’s position to the degree the Court allows.

It’s our position that Vermont legislators were well within their rights to weigh in on Vermont Yankee.  It’s true that only the federal government can regulate “safety” matters at nuclear power plants, but Vermont legislators weren’t just concerned with the safety of the troubled plant as Judge Murtha declared.  They considered many other aspects of the plant, including reliability and economic factors.

Challenging Murtha’s decision is important for another reason: it sets a terrible precedent that could discourage public testimony before committees of the legislature.  He alleged that legislators must have been motivated only by safety matters when they voted on Vermont Yankee because certain witnesses spoke of safety matters (of course they did – real people are rightly concerned about the safety of Vermont Yankee!).

It’s critical for people to feel free to testify before committees in the legislature without having to worry that their testimony will someday be used by a judge to nullify the law.
Second, despite Murtha’s ruling, Vermont retains some important authority over the plant.  The Public Service Board (PSB) still must grant Entergy Louisiana a Certificate of Public Good in order for the plant to continue operating.

One week ago, the PSB called together all of the groups with a formal interest in the VY case, including VPIRG.  The PSB had suspended its consideration of the future of VY when the Senate voted overwhelmingly against the plant in 2010.  But since Judge Murtha invalidated the law that allowed the legislature to weigh in, the PSB is once again taking up the question.

At the hearing last Friday, the PSB was incredibly skeptical of Entergy’s arguments, going so far as to question whether the state has the authority to let Entergy store more radioactive waste in Vernon.  VPIRG’s position is that Entergy is not allowed to produce more radioactive waste at VY under current law, and that unless that law is changed, the PSB lacks the authority to provide an exemption.

If we’re right, this could be a means of retiring the plant this year.  Our attorney and advocates will continue to work tirelessly exploring every angle.  We expect some answers at the PSB – at least to set a schedule moving forward – within weeks.

Third, we’re working with legislative allies and the Shumlin administration to ensure that as long as Vermont Yankee operates, it will be required to contribute to the development of green energy alternatives in the state.  We’re working to close a loophole that allows VY to be taxed at a much lower rate than other most renewable power sources per unit of energy it produces.  By ending this sweetheart deal, we’ll not only increase much needed state revenues, we’ll also level the playing field among power generators in Vermont.

Fourth, VPIRG and 36 other clean energy groups recently petitioned the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to adopt new regulations to expand emergency evacuation zones and improve emergency response planning around U.S. nuclear reactors, including VY.
We joined the Nuclear Information Resource Service and others in calling on the NRC to incorporate the real-world lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and expand existing emergency evacuation zones from 10 to 25 miles around nuclear reactors.  We also urged the NRC to establish a new zone from 25-50 miles around reactors for which utilities would have to identify and publicize potential evacuation routes.

The NRC also just handed down orders this week that would require nuclear plants, especially old ones like Vermont Yankee, to implement significant new safety measures. While we’re still looking into the orders and believe some could have been stronger, they’re a good step in the right direction.

Finally, VPIRG and many other local and nonprofit groups will be holding events to mark the date when Vermont Yankee’s 40 year license expires.  On March 21st, come rally with us – arrive in front of the State House on State Street at 4 pm to show your support for closing VY.  A smaller group will then head back into the State House for a mock retirement party. Other groups will be taking the lead with events taking place near the plant in Vernon.  If you’re interested in learning more about these events, visit http://www.sagealliance.net/.

As you can see, we’re not giving up and we’re not giving in.  We’ll continue to pursue every means available to us to see that Vermont Yankee is retired for good as soon as possible.