01/24/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2012

States Should Maintain Role in Nuclear Oversight

Governor Peter Shumlin's efforts to challenge the safety of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant does not mark the first time that a Vermont governor went toe to toe with the plant. In 1985, when I was governor, I learned that the plant had falsified inspection reports for years and that thousands of unchecked parts may have been installed.

The plant had an unplanned shut down for eight months to replace the entire recirculation piping unit. Both plant officials and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had kept me in the dark. The state's nuclear engineer concluded that probably violations had occurred in the "storage and handling program for safety related materials." Plant officials issued denials. Who was right? How could I assure Vermonters that the plant was safe? That is the same question that is being asked today.

Governors have the responsibility to protect the safety of their citizens. If the plant accidentally releases radiation, the governor takes immediate action, ordering an evacuation, issuing iodine pills. But the governor had no power to prevent an accident in the first place.

My first step was to obtain an impartial evaluation of the plant. It was not so easy to get the safety question answered because "experts" were divided into two camps, either anti nuclear or pro nuclear scientists. After many insistent phone calls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I reached the New England regional director. We toured the plant together and as a result, he ordered a complete inspection of Vermont Yankee. He was as concerned as I was, and recommended major safety changes in the plant which were implemented. I established a new position -- an on site nuclear inspector to act as liaison between the NRC and the state.

I went a step further. I brought a resolution to the National Governor's Association, which stated that governors should have more authority over the safety of their nuclear power plants. Governor John Sununu was not pleased. He saw this as a direct attract on the approval of New Hampshire's Seabrook plant, which had been beset by demonstrations. In one outburst, he told my staff person, "I'm going to raise a million dollars to defeat your governor."

When Chernobyl occurred in 1986, calls for a shutdown of Vermont Yankee began. The question remains: how can the public know whether a nuclear power plant is safe to operate? What was underscored in the recent Vermont court case is that safety questions are decided by the federal government. The state, can, however, make an economic argument -- a more difficult task.

The best solution would be for a more safety-oriented Nuclear Regulatory Commission to work with Vermont and decide whether Vermont Yankee's lifespan is safe to extend.

To succeed, the NRC would have to change course from being a nuclear energy salesman to being a nuclear cop.