Politics Start to Go Nuclear

For more than three decades, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been the subject of intense public debate throughout the state, especially in Windham county. In the past few years, several towns passed Town Meeting resolutions calling for the plant to be closed when its operating license expires in 2012. The state legislature has spent countless hours passing laws relating to Vermont Yankee. Dozens of people have been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience at the plant’s gates in Vernon, and at the Brattleboro office of Entergy Corp., the reactor’s Louisiana-based owner. The next year is likely to be the most intense yet for the battle over the future of Vermont Yankee.

Two years ago, the state legislature passed, and Governor James Douglas signed, Act 160, which gave the legislature the authority to decide whether Vermont Yankee can operate after 2012. If the legislature does not vote on the matter by 2012, the reactor must close. Lobbying is already heating up in Montpelier in anticipation of a vote during next year’s legislative session, which will start in January and is expected to conclude in May.

Because of the way Act 160 was written, the governor will not be able to veto the legislature’s decision on whether to let Yankee run after 2012. But the outcome of the November governor’s election is likely to impact the reactor. Whoever is governor next year will appoint someone to a six year term on the three member Public Service Board, a key forum for deciding Vermont Yankee’s future, when board member John Burke’s term expires.

Douglas, a Republican, last month pleased Entergy when he vetoed a bill that would have required the company to pay for cleaning up Vermont Yankee when the reactor closes. The clean-up is estimated to cost at least $500 million. The governor said the bill might have raised the cost of electricity. Douglas is running against Democrat Gaye Symington, who is speaker of the Vermont House, and Anthony Pollina, the Progressive Party candidate. Six Progressives currently serve in the Vermont House. In recent interviews with the Commons, Pollina said Vermont Yankee should close in 2012, while Douglas and Symington said they needed more information before deciding.

“That’s really unacceptable,” said Paul Burns, director of the state’s biggest environmental advocacy organization, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). “There is more than enough information available now for any candidate for statewide office to decide whether Vermont Yankee should close in 2012.”

Under the state constitution, if none of the three candidates for governor gets 50 percent of the vote, the Democrat-controlled state legislature will choose the next governor. In 2002, Pollina ran for lieutenant governor against Peter Shumlin, the Putney Democrat who is now president of the state senate, and Brain Dubie, a Republican who is now lieutenant governor. Pollina and Shumlin shared similar views on major issues and got a combined 56 percent of the vote, but Dubie was elected.

In a recent interview, Shumlin declined to say whether Vermont Yankee should run past 2012. “Many Vermonters outside of Windham county don’t understand the problems with Vermont Yankee,” he said. “That’s why Symington and I ordered a study to be done this year, with public hearings to be held around the state, about the best place to put the nuclear waste which is now in the flood plain of the Connecticut river in Vernon. Burlington would be one of the sites considered for the nuclear waste dump.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) does most of the industry’s lobbying and PR work. Its annual budget is $40 million, and Entergy is the second biggest source of money for the organization, said NEI spokesman Steve Kerekes. Vermont Yankee should be allowed to run after 2012, he said. “Nuclear power is cheaper than the alternatives, even including the cost of waste storage,” Kerekes said.

But a 1995 report by the National Academies of Science, “Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards,” appears to contradict that claim. The report found that nuclear waste generated by Vermont Yankee and the nation’s 64 other nuclear power plants, the deadliest material on earth, could still be dangerous 1 million years from now. During that time it will need to be protected by armed guards, 24 hours a day.

Kerekes said, “Without Vermont Yankee, you would not have reliable electricity. Without air conditioning, during a heat wave people can be killed, especially old people.”

Spending one dollar on energy efficiency programs like Efficiency Vermont saves approximately three times as much energy as spending one dollar on nuclear power generates. That’s according to a 2005 study by Amory Lovins in the journal Nuclear Engineering International. The dollar spent on energy efficiency also creates more jobs than the dollar spent on nuclear. So if Vermonters took the money they now give to Entergy for electricity from Vermont Yankee and instead spent it on Efficiency Vermont, the reactor could be closed, electricity bills would go down, and there would be a net increase in jobs.

Entergy’s web site about Vermont Yankee says the plant’s power is “emission free.” However, the fossil fuel emissions caused by construction of nuclear power plants, mining and transporting nuclear fuel, and transporting, guarding and storing nuclear waste cause global warming.

The Entergy web site says, “Vermont Yankee is safe.” But a 1982 study performed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for Congress predicted that 7,000 people would be killed by a serious accident at Vermont Yankee. The study has never been updated. Yankee is now producing 20 percent more electricity than it did for the first three decades after it opened in 1972. James Asselstine, then a member of the NRC appointed by President Reagan, told the New York Times in 1987 there was a 45 percent chance of a meltdown at a nuclear reactor somewhere in the United States by 2007.

In August 2001, the NRC said Vermont Yankee had the worst security of any of the nation’s nuclear power plants. Since that year’s terrorist attacks, the NRC has kept the rankings secret. Last month, the NRC said security had again lapsed at Vermont Yankee; details were kept secret.

Gov. Douglas told the Commons, “Vermont Yankee has been a cost effective, emissions free source of energy for years.”

Speaker Symington told the Commons, “Under my leadership, we passed a law this year that requires an independent audit of the reliability of Vermont Yankee.”

Paul Burns of VPIRG said the audit law is weak. He and Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), the most active of the anti-nuclear groups based near Vermont Yankee, both said the chances are good that the reactor will close in 2012 – if ordinary people become active. Protests preceded the shutdown of the Shoreham, Yankee Atomic, Millstone I, Rancho Seco, and Maine Yankee nuclear power plants.

Other local anti-nuclear groups are the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution and Nuclear Free Vermont. The home page of the Coalition’s web site has dramatic photos of a 2004 fire, and last year’s flood, at Vermont Yankee.

Daniel Sicken of Dummerston works at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. He has lived in Windham county for 30 years. In 2006, Sicken was one of 10 people arrested for non-violent civil disobedience at Entergy’s Brattleboro office. Last year, he was one of four people arrested for hanging a giant banner that said “Shut VY” from the roof of the same building. In a recent interview, Sicken said civil disobedience is important. “People also need to speak with Vermonters who live outside of Windham county about why Vermont Yankee should be closed,” he said. “CAN is organizing people to make phone calls and go door-to-door.”

Comments

Post new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.