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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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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