The future of the Vermont Yankee reactor remains murky following a federal judge’s January 19 ruling against state laws that would have required the shutdown of the reactor at the end of its original license period on March 21, 2012.
U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha ruled that two state laws intended to prevent Vermont Yankee from operating after that date are pre-empted by the Atomic Energy Act, which gives all power to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for regulation of nuclear power on safety or radiological grounds and forbids states from enacting their own laws on such issues.
That would appear to be a clear-cut victory for the Entergy Corporation, which owns the troubled reactor. But as is often the case with nuclear power issues, the outcome of this ongoing saga remains uncertain.
At Nuclear Monitor presstime, the state had not yet announced whether it would appeal the decision -and there do appear to be some grounds for appeal. Judge Murtha’s ruling was based not on the actual language of the Vermont laws, but on the fact that many state legislators had frequently and publicly expressed serious concern about the safety of the reactor during deliberations on the laws. In other words, Judge Murtha went after what he perceived as the motivations for the laws, rather than the laws themselves. Considering that there may be multiple motivations for nearly every law a legislature enacts, this would seem to be on slippery ground.
A little background: in 2002, Entergy agreed that the Vermont Public Service Board would have to issue a new Certificate of Public Good (CPG) to allow Vermont Yankee to continue operating, even if a license extension were granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Public Service Board does not deal with nuclear safety issues; rather it focuses on rates, quality of service, environmental matters generally, and radioactive waste storage and decommissioning issues -which courts have ruled can fall under state authority.
In 2006, with Vermont Yankee’s operations under mounting criticism within the state, the Vermont legislature passed a law requiring approval from both houses of the legislature for the Public Service Board to issue a CPG. And in February 2010, following revelations of radioactive tritium releases and other problems, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against allowing the Board to issue the CPG.
It was the 2006 law, and another related law, that the judge struck down. However, the judge also ruled against Entergy on another issue, and determined that the Vermont Public Service Board must still issue the CPG for Vermont Yankee to continue operating. Entergy has now applied for the CPG; it isn’t known at this point whether the Board will reflect the overwhelming sentiment of Vermonters and deny the Certificate, or whether it will allow the reactor to continue operating.
Meanwhile, in a separate legal proceeding, the State and the grassroots New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution have gone to court to argue that the NRC’s license extension for Vermont Yankee should be nullified because Entergy did not apply for a needed permit under the federal Clean Water Act. Entergy and the NRC have responded that the company did have a different but similar permit. States have a clear right to regulate water discharges from nuclear reactors.
Judge Murtha’s decision was met with outrage by those who have been fighting Vermont Yankee for years. Protests have taken place across the state—from the reactor gates in the south to a march by Occupy Burlington in the north. A number of actions will take place throughout March, including a mock evacuation on March 11 (Vermont Yankee is a Fukushima-clone GE Mark I reactor), a “retirement party” for Vermont Yankee on March 21 and nonviolent civil disobedience the next day, culminating in a major rally on April 1 in Brattleboro just a few miles from the reactor site. The actions are being coordinated by the SAGE Alliance (of which NIRS is a member) and more information can be found at http://sagealliance.net/action_center. The Alliance is also asking grassroots groups across the country to support Vermont Yankee shutdown efforts by holding support rallies at Entergy-owned facilities everywhere during March.
Source and contact: Michael Mariotte at NIRS Washington