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Vermont Senate shocks industry with 26-4 vote to close Vermont Yankee

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Michael Mariotte at NIRS

In a move that sent shock waves through the nuclear power industry, the Vermont State Senate voted overwhelmingly February 24 to close the Vermont Yankee reactor when its current operating license expires in 2012. Coming just a week after President Obama’s announcement of an US$8.3 billion loan for construction of two new reactors in Georgia, the 26-4 vote carried a message -bolstered later by two new public opinion polls- that the public is not sold on the notion that nuclear power is either safe or clean.

The Vermont Senate vote followed weeks of revelations about growing radioactive tritium leaks at the site -culminating in a February 6 measurement of 2.45 million picocuries per liter of water, nearly the amount found in reactor process water. Federal limits of tritium concentrations in drinking water -often criticized as far too lax- are 20,000 picocuries per liter. At this point, Vermont Yankee’s owner, Entergy Corp., says that the tritium contamination has not migrated offsite.


But Entergy’s claims are taken with a grain of salt, since another major factor in Vermont’s disillusionment with Vermont Yankee was the fact that Entergy officials had told the legislature last summer that there were no buried pipes at all on the site. In fact, it was exactly such a buried pipe found to be leaking the tritium.

And Entergy, which is in the process of attempting to put all of its nuclear reactors into a new limited liability holding company called Enexus, also lost points with Vermont lawmakers because the reactor’s decommissioning fund is far short of what is needed, and Entergy’s plans to add to the fund rely solely on running the reactor as long and hard as it can. But lawmakers pointed out that Enexus would be undercapitalized, would more likely take money out of the decommissioning fund than put it in, and that it appeared the entire corporate structure of Enexus is to keep Entergy from being liable for future decommissioning obligations.

Already, Vermont’s action has caused New York State regulators, where Entergy owns the Indian Point reactors, to consider placing new restrictions on Enexus, perhaps forcing Enexus to drop Vermont Yankee from its holdings and possibly even scuttling the deal entirely. The State is currently involved in litigation before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and asking for a denial of Indian Point’s request for a license extension.

Still, nuclear power issues drag on and on, and Vermont Yankee is no exception, despite the surprising margin of the Senate vote. The reactor is licensed until 2012, and Entergy says it plans to continue operating it until then. State legislative elections will be held this November, and Entergy is clearly hoping that if it can clean up its act a little -and it has fired or reassigned several top Vermont Yankee officials- it can reverse the vote in a new legislature next year.

Even if that doesn’t work, Entergy may try to challenge the vote on pre-emption grounds. In the U.S., the federal government has sole authority over all safety and radiation issues -the states cannot close, or prevent construction of- a reactor for those reasons. But it also clear that the states do have the power to regulate on economic grounds, as well as lack of access to a radioactive waste site, which is the basis for several state laws prohibiting new reactor construction. And indeed, while the radioactive tritium releases sparked growing public opposition to the reactor (which in Vermont is overwhelmingly in favor of shutdown), the vote was based on reliability and economic issues, especially related to the decommissioning shortfall.

Vermont was already in a unique situation, in that the state had negotiated a deal with Entergy some years back that it would have the power to approve or deny a license renewal for the reactor. Although that deal was in contract form, rather than legislative, it appears likely that deal will hold up in court if necessary.

At this point, Entergy is still seeking a 20-year license extension from the NRC, and the agency seems likely to grant it despite the tritium leaks and other problems with the reactor (in 2007, for example, a cooling tower simply collapsed due to inadequate maintenance). But the state still could find itself defending its position in court if Entergy chooses to do so, and could be in the awkward position of seeking to close a reactor that the NRC has agreed to relicense.

Grassroots groups are well aware of the potential pitfalls ahead, and are continuing their efforts to assure this victory is not overturned. Two groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and New England Coalition, already have petitioned to close the reactor now and not wait until 2012.

Meanwhile, two new public opinion polls released in March indicate that a nuclear revival is not as popular as some politicians seem to believe. A UPI poll found that new reactor construction is supported by less than a majority (48%) of the public, although only 31% were listed as opposed -the rest didn’t know. But that same poll found that more than 70% of the public is concerned about nuclear accidents and routine radiation releases from reactors, and nearly 80% is concerned about radioactive waste. A Pew poll found 52% support new reactors with 41% opposed, but that was still the least popular choice for new energy development -behind even offshore oil drilling. The vast majority -by a 78-17% margin- support renewable energy and energy efficiency development, just as the public has for the past two decades. While nuclear power remains controversial and highly divisive, genuinely safe, clean, sustainable energy has retains vast support. Are you listening, Mr. President?

Source and contact: Michael Mariotte at NIRS

Legislatures in West Virginia and Arizona defeat pro-nuclear measures. West Virginia’s official ban on the construction of nuclear power plants is staying put. A bill to repeal that state's ban on new nuclear construction was defeated in the state legislature on February 25. Although the bill had already passed the Senate's Energy and Mining Committee, it received only one vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee and is now dead for the year.
On the same day in Arizona, a bill to classify nuclear power as renewable energy was withdrawn following heavy lobbying from the solar power industry and environmental community.
Democracy in 25 February 2020

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