by Joe Shea
Feb. 22, 2012
AWAITING THE NEXT GREAT MISTAKE
DUMMERSTON, Vt., Feb. 16, 2012 -- In an age where corporations are considered people, and the amount of power that they wield over our lives grows by the day, the state of Vermont has been fighting a seemingly impossible battle against Entergy Corp. over the future of the state's lone nuclear plant.
Vermont Yankee, located in Vernon, opened in 1972. It's original 40-year operating license expires on March 21. But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved a 20-year license extension last March, the day before an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daichi nuclear complex in Japan.
Our reactor shares the same design as Fukushima reactors that suffered meltdowns and explosions after the cooling systems failed following the earthquake and tsunami. While those two natural disasters are non-existent in Vermont, we still see floods, hurricanes, and low-level seismic activity. In fact, in 2011, we had all three in Vermont. Fortunately, Vermont Yankee stayed in operation.
Normally, if the NRC approves a license extension, that ends the argument. But Vermont is the only state that has the power to close a nuclear plant.
By state law, any power plant must have a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) to operate. Entergy, which bought Vermont Yankee in 2002, agreed to this arrangement. They figured it would never be an issue.
Unfortunately for Entergy, a series of mishaps at the plant - a cooling tower collapse, a transformer yard fire, missing spent fuel rods, and the discovery of tritium in groundwater monitoring wells - soured public opinion and confidence in the company running the plant.
In 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to direct the PSB not to issue Vermont Yankee a CPG. That led to Entergy filing a lawsuit last year against the state of Vermont, alleging that the state overstepped its regulatory authority.
That case played out in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro last fall. Entergy hired a top-flight legal team led by Kathleen Sullivan, who is the former dean of the Stanford Law School and had been in the mix for a U.S. Supreme Court nomination.
Needless to say, the state's legal team was totally outgunned. Last month, U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha ultimately ruled in favor of Entergy and supported its claim that Vermont improperly intruded on the NRC's turf.
By law, only the NRC can regulate nuclear plants based on safety. States have no legal authority to address nuclear issues.
This simple fact illustrates the absurdity of federal regulation of nuclear power. A state is prohibited from any control over an issue that affects the very lives of its citizens - nuclear safety - while a government agency with a long record of being a lapdog for the nuclear industry, is deemed the sole arbiter of safety.
Absurd? Yes. Unfortunately, that is the law.
While the state can't shut Vermont Yankee down based on safety concerns, but the Public Service Board still has the right to reject a CPG on the basis of other factors. Unfortunately, this requires a level of semantic gymnastics that corporates can rip apart at will, since it is nearly impossible to differentiate safety from the other aspects of nuclear power.
For example, how can the state talk about environmental issues without objectively acknowledging that when nuclear power plants degrade our environment, they do so largely by means of by-products that are unsafe? How can the state discuss reliability without also discussing that a nuclear power plant that isn't working might well not be working because of mechanical failures that also result in safety issues?
Other arguments are more clear-cut. The economic factor has already been decided, since Vermont's utility companies will not be buying power from Vermont Yankee after March 21. If the plant continues operating, its power will go out of state - and thus, Vermonters' economic best interests in power deals are not even an issue.
Water quality is still an area the state can regulate. Tritium is leaking into the Connecticut River, and the river water used to cool VY's reactor is returning to the river at temperatures that affect fish habitat.
The state of Vermont is still mulling whether it will appeal Judge Murtha's decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. In the meantime, Entergy has been pressuring the Public Service Board to give it the CPG, and saying that the state of Vermont should pay the $4.7 million it cost Entergy to litigate its case.
We here in Vermont don't know how this case will turn out, but we think our state's fight is a preview of coming attractions. There hasn't been a new nuclear plant built in the United States in more than three decades, and while countries like Japan and Germany are scaling back their commitment to nuclear power, the United States is trying to maintain an aging and increasingly unreliable fleet.
Despite all the talk of a "nuclear renaissance," the reality is that nuclear power needs billions of dollars of federal subsidies to survive and there still is no safe place to put the highly poisonous waste they produce. Moreover, in a recent video NASA scientists say they can replace nuclear energy with a safe, pollution-free and inexpensive form of nuclear energy called LENR. U.S. media has ignored that story.
But given the stranglehold that the nuclear industry has on the NRC, and federal lawmakers' propensity to prostitute themselves to huge corporate interests, if new plants can't be built, the existing fleet will be run indefinitely. That is a disaster waiting to happen.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). This week, he won First Prize in the weekly Spot News category in the New England Newspaper & Press Assn. Better Newspaper Contest. In 2007, he was selected the state's Best Editorial Writer by the Vermont Press Assn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.