The Magazine

Vermont Stands Alone

Hi ho, the derry-o: the obsessions of a single-party state

Aug 8, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 44 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Dorset, Vermont

The country may have turned right in the 2010 election, but Vermont, manifestly, did not. The state is small, with a population of slightly more than 625,000 souls and a landmass that could be swallowed up by, say, Wyoming. But Vermont is feisty. If it were a dog, it would be a Jack Russell terrier. Vermont was the first state in the union to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of the legislature as opposed to judicial fiat, and it routinely sends a socialist, Bernie Sanders, to Congress. In fact, Senator Sanders gave a long, filibuster-like speech in opposition to the tax bill passed during the 2010 lame duck session that was hundred-proof class warfare, potent enough to inspire a Sanders-for-President website and to be published in book form so that people who can’t get enough of progressive rhetoric can go to the bookshelf at any time and thrill to Lincolnesque passages like this:

[W]e can put people to work improving our water systems, our wastewater plants. It is a very expensive proposition to develop a good wastewater plant. … It is an expensive proposition for roads, bridges. Furthermore, I do not have to tell anybody here, our rail system, which used to be the greatest rail system in the world, is now falling way behind every other major country on Earth.

The same impulse that sends Sanders to the Senate elected Peter Shumlin governor of Vermont in November 2010. The office had been held for the previous eight years by Jim Douglas, a moderate Republican who somehow managed to transcend that awkward fact in the minds of an electorate who, for the last of his two-year terms, nevertheless took the precaution of burdening him with a veto-proof legislature. The Vermont Republican party went into decline while Douglas was governor, and by the time he announced that he would not run for reelection, it was on life support. 

So in November 2010, while the rest of the nation was voting its remorse for what it had done in 2008, Vermont went the other way, reaffirming the faith it had demonstrated when it gave more than 67 percent of its vote to Barack Obama. Now the state once again has a Democratic governor. Both houses of the legislature have veto-proof Democratic majorities. There is even a robust Progressive party presence in the state house. And, of course, there are the state’s three representatives in Washington: in the Senate, Sanders and Patrick Leahy, a partisan warhorse first elected in the Watergate backdraft of 1974 who just won a seventh term, and in the House, Vermont’s lone member, Peter Welch, a bland and reliably liberal Democrat.

The Republican party’s senior officeholder is the lieutenant governor, Phil Scott, who is colorful and energetic—he drives race cars and does symbolic, one-day turns at various forms of labor, like dishwashing, to better understand the lives of voters—but also believes in consensus and considers himself a “partner” in the Shumlin administration.

In Vermont, then, the left is on a roll, with no serious opposition and nothing to keep it from achieving its goals except, perhaps, its own overreach.

Many of those goals, as it happens, had already been achieved even before the last election. In 2000, the state recognized “civil unions” under a law signed behind closed doors by Governor Howard Dean. In 2009, both houses of the legislature passed a bill making same-sex marriage legal. Douglas vetoed the bill and was overridden. 

By 2010, then, not much was left to do when it came to the social issues, except to legalize marijuana, which doesn’t seem to excite the passions it once did, perhaps because hardly anyone ever gets busted these days for smoking the stuff. In other areas, however, there remained an unfinished agenda, and one of its most important items was the killing off of nuclear power. 


 

The story of Vermont and nuclear power resembles the long, acrimonious breakup of a bad marriage. Mutual suspicions, angry recriminations, conflicts over money—nukes and Vermont were probably never compatible. 

A nuclear plant has been producing electricity in Vermont since 1972, and even before it went on line, some citizens were determined to shut it down. They proved to be in for the long haul. For them, nuclear power was a defilement of the natural world. In their view, it not only caused cancer; it was cancer. The salvation of the human race depended on the eradication of all things nuclear, starting with the Vermont Yankee plant on the Connecticut River in the southeast corner of the state.

The plant was originally owned by a consortium of New England utilities. In 2002, it was bought by Entergy, a Louisiana-based energy conglomerate that was expanding its holdings in nuclear power and had purchased the much larger Indian Point plants in New York two years before. The Vermont Yankee deal—brokered by Howard Dean’s administration—included an understanding that Entergy would increase the output of the plant by some 20 percent and apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license extension so as to continue operating for another 20 years after the original license was due to expire in March 2012.

“In your dreams,” swore the antinuclear forces. They understood that if they had a chance of shutting down a nuclear plant anywhere, Vermont was that place. Vermont, where the commune movement took root and flourished in the 1960s and ’70s and where commune-reared children were now voters. Vermont, where at town meetings in 1981, once business like the amount of road salt to lay in for winter was dispensed with, 14 towns voted for a freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Vermont was the place; Yankee was the plant.

The first years of Entergy’s ownership were relatively calm. Protesters would occasionally picket the company’s state headquarters or the plant and sometimes get themselves arrested for trespassing. They would pack information hearings and town meetings to shout down speakers. They would send letters to the editor, describing how they lived in fear of a Chernobyl on the Connecticut, and the state’s newspapers routinely published them.

Not long after Entergy acquired Vermont Yankee, it faced a crisis not of its own making. The plant was running out of space in the pool where it stored spent fuel. With a proposed federal storage facility in Nevada on hold, Vermont Yankee adopted a plan to encase its spent fuel in cylinders of steel and concrete called “dry casks” and store them above ground, on a concrete pad. The antinuke forces were of course opposed, and in 2004 they pressured the legislature in Montpelier into ruling that before there could be storage in dry casks Entergy must agree to make regular payments into a fund to subsidize renewable energy projects. Those payments have, at this time, amounted to some $20 million. Peter Welch was the leader of the Vermont senate at the time and instrumental in brokering this “deal.” People at Entergy had another word for it.

Meanwhile, they continued to improve and upgrade the plant as part of their plan to increase output by 20 percent. There had never been any secret about this, but the antis were opposed on the ground that it would stress the “aging” plant and lead to an accident. 

Still, after many protests and dire warnings of catastrophe, the plant increased its power output and continued to supply about one-third of Vermont’s baseload electricity at a rate that was the lowest in New England. At this point, just about everyone assumed the antis had been marginalized and Yankee would be given permission by the federal and state authorities to operate for another 20 years. Until one day in the summer of 2007 when a cooling tower collapsed. 

The cooling towers at Vermont Yankee are not those hourglass shaped affairs whose silhouette has become the unofficial logo of nuclear power. In fact, at Yankee they are not “towers” at all. More like sheds. By some accounts, the shed design was adopted because, in Vermont, it might be better if a nuclear plant looked like something else.

At any rate, one of the sheds collapsed, spilling several thousand gallons of warm water on the ground. No radiation was released. The accident was the equivalent of a broken water pump or radiator in a car, not a cracked block. The plant continued to operate at 50 percent capacity briefly and was back at full production in a few weeks.

But the photographs were dramatic, and the headlines were scary, and the opponents of nuclear power used them to maximum effect. This was the beginning of the turning of the tide of opinion about Vermont Yankee.

Other misfortunes followed. Tritium was found leaking from the plant, though in quantities that could not be detected in the Connecticut River. At hearings into the leak, an Entergy vice president answered a question in a fashion that some claimed was intentionally misleading. The attorney general launched a criminal investigation that lasted more than a year and at the end of which, on July 6, he announced that no charges would be filed. This being Vermont, he could not resist taking a shot at Entergy in a statement that accused its executives of having “repeatedly failed to meet a minimally acceptable standard of credibility and trustworthiness.” 

But his office lacked (and you could almost hear the sigh of disappointment here) “the smoking gun necessary to prove the crime, and it would be unethical and irresponsible for us to press criminal charges when we do not have the evidence to meet our heavy burden of proof.”

Throughout this period, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found Vermont Yankee safe, and the plant stayed online for two “breaker to breaker” runs—without interruptions of service between normal shutdowns for refueling—of more than 500 days each. The plant was safe according to the regulators and reliable by the most obvious indicator—its performance.


 

It was also hated and despised by a serious, sizable, and active segment of the Vermont population whose belief system is full of contradictions but who are moved less by reason than by faith. Most of these people are convinced of the global warming hypothesis and believe that tiny Vermont not only is part of the problem but also has the potential to be part of the solution. It can show “leadership.” The same people who believe this also want the Yankee plant shut down in spite of the fact that, by providing one-third of the state’s baseload power, it helped make Vermont the lowest emitter of carbon per capita of all the states.

The antis don’t care. They prefer renewables—wind and solar. Never mind that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, meaning that the state’s utilities would need backup power from the grid and that power would most likely be generated by plants that burned fossil fuels, producing carbon. In addition, there is the problem in Vermont of the regulatory minefield that must be negotiated before anything as ambitious as a wind farm can be built. Many have tried. At this point, two have succeeded—and one of them is still a little short of being a done deal. Furthermore, even if wind farms were built in all the prime locations, the power they produced would be insufficient to replace that now provided by the nuclear plant.

But wind is renewable, so even though wind farms will blight the ridgelines of the Green Mountains, creating an eyesore visible for miles around, they are beautiful in the eyes of the believers and they must be built. To drive this point home, the legislature passed a law requiring the state’s utilities to purchase a fixed amount of power generated by renewables at a price several times higher than what they were paying Yankee. In Vermont, not all megawatts are equal.

In their campaign to close down Yankee, the anti-nuclear forces routinely disparaged Entergy as a “big, out-of-state corporation.” Vermont’s largest private-sector employer, IBM, is also large and from out of state. The state’s iconic business enterprise, Ben & Jerry’s, is owned by Unilever, a British-Dutch conglomerate. One of the major Vermont utilities, which supplies Vermonters with electricity generated by Yankee, is owned by Gaz Metro based in Quebec. (Gaz Metro is attempting to buy the state’s largest utility and merge it with the one it already owns.) 

Louisiana, though, is hostile territory. Entergy contributed to its own woes by conducting its business with state officials in a highhanded way. At one point, even Governor Douglas, an exceedingly careful politician whose base would be inclined to support Entergy, said he had lost confidence in the company.

The fight went increasingly against Yankee, and in 2010 the state senate took a vote on relicensing the plant. (This requirement is unique to Vermont, where in 2006 the legislature passed a bill, pushed by Peter Welch, that barred the state’s Public Service Board from issuing a permit for the continued operation of Yankee without legislative approval.) The senate voted “no.” It was the first and last vote on the matter, even though the 2006 law specifically calls for a vote of the “General Assembly,” which comprises the house of representatives as well as the senate.

Entergy, meanwhile, had applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a federal license extension that would allow the plant to operate until 2032. That application was approved. But no state license was forthcoming, in spite of a lavish PR campaign whipped up by Entergy and its supporters. Peter Shumlin made distrust of Entergy and opposition to relicensing a signature issue in his campaign for governor. After he won, there was a forlorn attempt to find a buyer for the plant. It failed, unsurprisingly, since the fundamental issue wasn’t the owner but the fact that the property was a nuclear plant, so with a federal license to operate but none from the state, Entergy went to court.

Federal law does not permit states to rule on issues of safety at nuclear plants. The NRC has sole jurisdiction in these questions. So in the case that is now in the courts, Vermont is obliged to argue that its concerns about Yankee have nothing to do with safety but only “reliability.” This is a tough one, given the record of “breaker to breaker” functioning.

In its war against Entergy, Vermont showed just how far it would go when the legislature passed a bill requiring the company to pay the state’s legal bills in the court case regardless of who won. One suspects this will hold up under judicial review about as well as the last two cases involving the state attorney general that went before the Supreme Court. Vermont lost both.

Still, requiring Entergy to pay the state’s legal bills was mild when compared with the remedy suggested by one Vermont legislator. His bill would have designated Vermont Yankee and Entergy a criminal conspiracy.

In May, with the legislature nearing adjournment, no possibility of relicensing on the horizon, and their long-term contract with Vermont Yankee coming to an end, the state’s major utilities needed to find replacement power.  One of them, Green Mountain Power, announced with some fanfare that it had signed a new, multiyear deal to purchase power generated in New Hampshire by .  .  . the Seabrook nuclear plant. Vermont, then, will not be free of nuclear sin for some 23 years. But the nuclear-generated power consumed in Vermont will be generated in someone else’s backyard.


 

For now, the legal battle continues. Entergy filed to enjoin the state from imposing a shutdown in March 2012 so that the company could continue to operate while it argued its case in court. A federal judge heard the arguments and ruled against Entergy saying, in essence, “Let’s move along and get this thing settled in court.”

Cheryl Hanna, a professor at the Vermont Law School, believes that the judge indicated, in his ruling, that Entergy has a strong case and could be in the clear before March 2012. For a week or so, considerable suspense surrounded the question of whether or not Entergy would pay some $65 million to purchase new fuel for the plant, which is scheduled for a refueling shutdown in October. Perhaps, some said, Entergy would decide to fold its cards rather than take the risk on refueling.  

For one long weekend, rumors flew. The plant was shutting down. No, the fuel had definitely been ordered.  Then, on July 25, the company announced it would proceed with the scheduled refueling.  

So, the fight will go on, in court, beginning in September. Both sides are confident. Vermont’s attorney general has vowed to take his argument all the way to the Supreme Court. A gesture of confidence or, perhaps, a bluff, given his record there.

It is, of course, entirely possible that the case could go against Entergy and that it would be compelled to shut down the Yankee plant in March of next year. If the plant is shut down, for whatever reason and on whatever date, it will most likely be put into a status known as Safe Store. This is a bit like “mothballing” a ship. The plant simply sits, unused, while it cools down, and money that has been put into a decommissioning fund compounds. Eventually—perhaps decades later—the plant is disassembled and scrapped. The opponents of nuclear power, of course, insist that when (not “if”) the plant is closed, Entergy must immediately decommission it and return the site to “green field” status. Most likely they will have to make that case, too, in court.

On the other hand, if Yankee gets wins the case that opens in September, the plant will continue to operate and sell power .  .  . possibly even to Vermont’s utilities.

But the plant will be a sullen presence on the banks of the Connecticut, and the recriminations are bound to continue. The antinukes will claim victory, but the divorce will be anything but clean or amicable. These two will not truly be rid of each other for a long time to come.

Geoffrey Norman edits the website VermontTiger.com.

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