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John Odum

John Odum

Posted: October 22, 2010 04:15 PM

Vermont has a population of 620,000. Of that, roughly 260,000 are expected to turn out to vote on Election Day.

The combined population of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut is 11,300,000, quite a bit more than 260,000, and yet those 260,000 are about to make a decision that could have tremendous impact on the lives of those other eleven-plus million.

One of the major issues on the campaign trail in Vermont is the relicensing of the state's aging and dangerous nuclear reactor, Entergy Corporation's Vermont Yankee plant. The problems with this plant have been documented at the Huffington Post in the past, such as in this piece from Vermonter Charlotte Dennett. The plant is quite old, has been beset with problems (including multiple leaks of radioactivity -- most notably a sustained leaking of radioactive tritium into the ground, the source of which took weeks to determine), is routinely pushed to produce energy beyond its originally intended capacity, and has also frequently had that production dialed back or completely halted to deal with safety or functional concerns. This is why a recent poll indicated that 44% of Vermonters want the plant shut down, compared to 39% that want it to stay open. 17% were undecided.

Since that time of that previous posting from Dennett, the plant has been found to be leaking again. Radioactive steam has been seeping from a pipe that is part the plant's emergency cooling system. This is in addition to recent revelations that the tritium which was found to be leaking some time ago has hit at least one drinking water well, despite assurances that this wouldn't happen. These assurances, of course, came from the Entergy Corporation, which previously couldn't find the leak, and which turned out to be coming from pipes which a spokesman had testified before the legislature didn't even exist.

The track record on transparency and honesty from the Entergy Corporation is not good.

The plant was only meant to function for 40 years (an expiration date now coming due), and the push is on from the corporation and its political allies to relicense the plant for another 20, which would be unprecedented. This push comes despite its history of leaks, dramatic structural collapses, and even a fire, along with other mishaps and embarrassments.

And despite its location: right on the Connecticut River, roughly where the borders of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts meet. Just upriver from Connecticut.

This puts the citizens of those other three states subject to the mood of the Vermont electorate this coming Election Day.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is, of course, supposed to preside over a regulatory regime for plants such as Yankee which -- as a federal agency representing all Americans -- is theoretically the great equalizer from on high. But as anyone active in these issues can tell you, their record of enforcement is lousy. In addition, the Obama administration has made a renewed federal commitment to nuclear power as part of the national energy portfolio and has already seemed loathe to meaningfully engage in any regulation that could negatively impact public support for such an expansion of the industry.

All of which is to say that the matter of the fate of this plant in the hands of Vermont lawmakers -- and ultimately, with an election approaching, that puts it in the hands of Vermont voters. The Vermont legislature has granted itself authority on the relicensing question, and a vote by the state Senate earlier in the year has put a stumbling block in Entergy's way -- at least for now. But the fact is that votes can be re-held, and the issue is a controversial one within the legislature, and between the two major party candidates for Governor; Republican Brian Dubie supports relicensing, Democrat Peter Shumlin does not.

But the fact is that nature abhors a vacuum, and the NRC's historic refusal to live up to its regulatory responsibility has created a regulatory and political vacuum.

So, whether they realize it or not, 260,000 voters in Vermont are filling that vacuum. They are about to make a decision that could prove to have an impact on the health and livelihood of many of New Hampshire's, Massachusetts', and downriver Connecticut's citizens -- and by extension could financially impact all those states' citizens.

Somehow, that just doesn't seem right.

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