A driving snowstorm could not keep Vermonters away from the statehouse in Montpelier last week as the Vermont Senate convened a historic debate and then voted on the future of the state's aging nuclear power plant. Some 1300 people -- most of them standing before live video coverage outside the small, overcrowded Senate chamber -- listened to several hours of respectful debate that even included the proposition of building a new nuclear power plant in Vermont as per President Obama's pro-nuclear agenda. But when it was all over, senators from both parties resoundingly voted against a last-minute amendment for a new plant to replace the old one, and similarly defeated re-licensure of Vermont Yankee in 2012 by a vote of 26 to 4.
Amidst cheers, clapping and hugs from the victors, it was clearly another Vermont moment for a state that prides itself on being cutting edge on social, political and environmental issues. As the only state in the nation that by statute allows its legislature to decide whether to re-license a nuclear power plant, the vote is likely to have wide-reaching ramifications, including for residents of Massachusetts who live near the Vermont Yankee plant.
Yet for all the euphoria felt by those who had waited for years for this outcome, questions linger over what will happen next as Vermont Yankee's out-of-state owner, Entergy, vows to keep on fighting to keep the plant open beyond 2012. What it all comes down to is a classic David versus Goliath fight, but with a twist: the David in this case is a legislative body elected by the citizens of a state. Its opposition is a giant Louisiana-based corporation whose considerable ability to bamboozle the public and frustrate state regulators finally came undone last month with a dual public relations disaster: The discovery, in January, of dangerously high amounts of radioactive tritium in testing wells close to the plant, and the revelation that Entergy had misled the public and regulators alike about the existence of underground piping, the source of the leak.
At the heart of Wednesday's debate was the erosion of public trust in Entergy. "Vermonters deserve better than an aging, unreliable nuclear power plant owned by an untrustworthy out-of state corporation," argued Senate Pro-Tem President Peter Shumlin, who organized the vote and has been the legislature's most vocal opponent of re-licensing. Sen. Randy Brock, a Republican, put it even more bluntly: "If the board of directors and management were infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not believe they could have done a better job in destroying their own case." But then he added a caveat -- that if new information came to his attention, he might vote differently in the future. For indeed, a new legislature could vote anew on the issue up until 2012, when the plant's 40 year license is up. For this reason, Republican Governor Jim Douglas stated "the vote has little practical or legal impact."
In other words, Vermont's power struggle over power is not over yet. Meanwhile, Entergy has yet to find the exact location of the leak, and legislators seem hamstrung about getting Entergy to even temporarily shut off the plant to find it. As Senator Susan Bartlett exclaimed in frustration, "No one has control over this!" Legislators couldn't even go to the Department of Natural Resources to impose a fine for leaking tritium into Vermont's waters because "we don't have jurisdiction."
At the heart of this predicament is a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that issues of health and safety fall under the jurisdiction of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not the states. In Vermont, this ruling has had the effect of confining debate, at least among legislators, to issues like utility rates, the state's economy and energy future. Even during Wednesday's debate, legislators were worried about discussing what was really on everyone's mind: the health and safety of Vermonters after they learned about the tritium leaks threatening the safety of drinking water and spilling into the Connecticut River that runs next to the plant. At one point, they called a brief recess to clarify what could and could not be said -- even though Vermont Constitution allows for free and open debate -- for fear that Entergy would find some violation that would give the company grounds for suing the legislature!
One anti-nuke group, the New England Coalition has filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission asking it to shut down the reactor. But the petition process can take weeks, and the NRC insists that the plant must keep running to find the leak. Meanwhile, it continues to downplay the risks to human health, even after it became known on February 7 that a new groundwater monitoring well was discovered to contain 2.45 million picocuries of tritium per liter. The "safe" limit for drinking water is 20,000 picocuries.
The Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy environmental group, has asked the Public Service Board to require Entergy to show why it's necessary to run the plant until the leak is found. But William Irwin, the radiological chief with the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) has insisted that "the system needs to be pressurized to find the leak, and operating the reactor is the best way to do that."
The VDH has been scandalously inept in responding to both the public's and legislators' concerns. Long before the tritium leaks, when the plant increased its power output by 20% in 2006, radiation levels at the plant's fence line also increased, surpassing acceptable legal limits. Rather than deal with the problem responsibly, Irwin chose concealment. With money donated by Entergy, he contracted with the nuclear-funded Oak Ridge Associates to come up with a new formula for measuring radiation at the fence line, thus making Yankee's radiation levels appear to be in compliance with state law, when, in fact, they exceeded them.
Since the tritium leaks were announced, the VDH has, like Entergy, downplayed the risk to public safety, claiming the contamination was confined to monitoring wells, thus not affecting drinking water, including the water of schoolchildren at the elementary school located a few hundred yards from the plant. The NRC similarly dismissed public health concerns, declaring that whatever leakage had gone into the Connecticut River was likely to be dissipated by water currents.
Vermont's regulatory agencies have not been much cause for comfort either. In the past, they have shown great deference to powerful utility companies, including Entergy. A case in point is a 2009 study, Relicensing of Vermont Yankee. It was prepared for The Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial board that supervises the rates, quality of service and overall financial management of Vermont's public utilities, by the Public Service Department, which is supposed to protect the public interest. Predictably, the PSD came out strongly in support of relicensing. "The significance of radiation exposure to the public ... after license renewal is expected to be continued to be small." Relicensing, the report concluded, would be a huge boost to the Vermont economy.
Still, as Entergy tries to repair its image so it can get a new vote next year, there are several factors that stand in its way. Vermonters don't like to be lied to. The feeling of betrayal on the part of Vermont legislators and the public is profound, as witnessed by the vote last week. Only a few days ago, Vermonters learned through a whistleblower that tritium had leaked from underground pipes in 2005 -- and the leaks -- like the underground pipes themselves -- were patched up and covered up.
Vermonters also have a strong sense of community. "Vermont is the best democracy in the country," Senator Shumlin stated at the conclusion of voting. And for that reason, "we cannot minimize how important this vote is." Unless Entergy can find a way to get pro-nuke legislators voted into office this year, it will not likely be able to change people's minds. Until the tritium leak, it had been able to confine the debate to raising concerns about high energy bills, questioning the availability of alternative energy sources, championing the cause of Vermont Yankee workers who stand to lose their jobs and the negative economic impact the plant's closing will have on adjoining communities. Vermont's lawmakers addressed all these concerns yesterday and now speak enthusiastically about a "new paradigm" based on renewable energy and the jobs it will create. But we all know what was number one in their thoughts, the one thing they could not address head on, the one thing that Entergy and the nuclear industry in general has tried for so long to suppress: the risk of radiation to public health. Entergy opened its own Pandora's Box, and what spilled out will undoubtedly continue to haunt the company -- and anger Vermonters -- for years to come.
Charlotte Dennett ran for Vermont Attorney General in 2008, pledging to close Vermont Yankee as one of her issues, and to prosecute George W. Bush for crimes committed in office as another. She has recently published a book about the need for accountability from high level elected officials and corporations entitled The People v Bush (Chelsea Green, 2010)