NEWPORT CITY – Vermont Yankee continues to be on the thoughts of many Vermonters and that was certainly the case at Monday’s Legislative Breakfast, held at the Eastside Restaurant.
Three years ago, Senate Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, decided the state’s only nuclear power plant should close, said Sen. Robert Starr (D-Orleans/Essex) of North Troy. He said lawmakers started working on a bill dealing with Vermont Yankee with no plan for the state’s energy future.
“You can’t turn the switch off without a plan to turn another switch to get the lights on,” said Starr.
Last February, lawmakers voted 26-4 to block a license extension for the nuclear plant.
Starr admitted to being one of the four in favor of extending the license.
In their discussions, legislators avoided citing the numerous safety issues, the age of the building, and the planned decommissioning that was to take place in March of this year. Instead they focused on economics; a lack of trust in the parent company, Entergy; and the contract with the state to decommission March 21, 2012.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha recently ruled in favor of Entergy and against the State of Vermont. The ruling held that the Atomic Energy Act preempted Vermont law.
“Plaintiffs have demonstrated they would be irreparably harmed by Vermont Yankee’s closure under preempted laws if Defendants enforced Act 160, or the preempted provision in Act 74, or if Defendants conditioned approval of a petition for continued operation on the existence of a below-market power purchase agreement with Vermont utilities,” Murtha wrote.
The state is filing an appeal.
The Vermont Public Service Board will now decide whether to issue a certificate of public good to Entergy that would allow the plant to continue operation for an additional 20 years.
The judge's decision made Starr both happy and sad. “It’s a no-win for you folks as taxpayers,” said Starr, who said that because the state lost the case, it has to pay lawyer fees from both sides.
Chet Greenwood, of Derby, who said he was addressing his remarks to the 99 percent, said the Shumlin administration spent $6 million on legal fees that could have gone towards things like heating and housing assistance. Greenwood said now there is talk about appealing the decision, which will cost even more money.
Murtha’s ruling didn’t surprise Rep. Mike Marcotte (R-Orleans-2) of Coventry who said the legislature voted against Vermont Yankee for safety concerns.
“Everybody was starting to say we need to hush up about safety,” recalled Marcotte. “It was about safety and safety is the prerogative of the federal government.”
Anne Chiarello of Newport suggested legislators speak to the Japanese, who were probably told for years that nuclear power is cheaper energy. “Ask them whether or not the cost of a $6 million suit would have been worth it to prevent the cost of the people who have been exposed to that radiation and can no longer live in that entire area and can no longer farm in that entire area,” Chiarello said.
Chiarello asked what the state could do to make the Nuclear Regulatory Commission more responsible if Vermont cannot be responsible for the plant which, she said, is leaking radiation into the river and has all the potential problems the Japanese power plant had. Starr suggested Chiarello write letters and that federal lawmakers in Washington might have more say.
“I don’t think we as a state have jurisdiction over it,” said Starr. Starr visited the plant, asked questions and couldn’t find anything wrong. He also said the plant looks brand new. “Personally, I'd just as soon sleep in the place.” Starr also said the tsunami is what caused problems at the nuclear power plant in Japan
“I don’t think we’re going to have a tsunami in Vernon, Vermont,” said Starr. “I do know if we chase that out of there, there are 600 direct jobs that are going to be gone, 200 other spinoff jobs would be gone, millions of dollars would not be paid into our treasury of the State of Vermont and it would create complete chaos in Windham County.” Starr said nobody showed him evidence that the power plant is dangerous.
“I’m afraid of those guys blowing up Lowell Mountain,” said Starr. “I am very concerned about rocks flying 400, 500 feet, but did it stop anything because I was concerned? No. They’re still up there, blowing away, ruining our ridgeline. I think that devastation is pretty serious, too.”
“We don’t want to downplay the seriousness of a nuclear power plant,” said Marcotte, who said the problems in Japan didn’t happen because of the earthquake. “The issue was the tsunami that happened afterwards that took out all the power and stopped the reactor from being able to be cooled. I don’t believe we’ll have that issue in Vernon. I am confident the plant is designed to withstand a severe earthquake.”
Marcotte said the owner is making upgrades, but won’t do a full one until they know the license is secured for another 20 years.
ISO New England representatives recently told Marcotte’s committee that they are working on a contingency plan in case the plant closes.
ISO New England is an independent, non-profit Regional Transmission Organization (RTO), serving much of New England. It oversees the electric power system and transmission lines of its member utilities and Hydro Quebec.
Marcotte said ISO New England is confident that, with work, the grid would be reliable, but it would put pressure on everybody.
Without the plant, there would be less power to buy from the grid and rates would increase, Starr said.
“If someone had the time and ability to really dig into this whole issue, they would find there is a conspiracy or something going on to drive green power,” said Starr. He said nobody would logically trade 4.5-cent power for 10, 15 and 20-cent power. Starr predicted the cost for wind power to be 10 cents to 20 cents. “Somebody has to make some money along the way to keep the transmission lines going.”
Marcotte predicts power rates will increase as the state moves towards meeting Gov. Peter Shumlin’s goal of having 75 percent renewable power by 2050. Right now Vermont has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, per kilowatt hour rate in New England. It’s good for people to conserve, but it won’t save money, because utility companies are businesses that need to raise prices when they sell less power, Marcotte said.