Business & Economy

Permission denied: In one fell swoop, Vermont Senate blocks Yankee license renewal

A protester exits the Senate chamber at the Vermont Statehouse after the vote

The Vermont Senate brought down Entergy’s case for relicensing Vermont Yankee nuclear power station in one blow. The senators voted 26-4 yesterday against S.289, a proposal that would have approved continued operation of the aging nuclear reactor through 2032.

It was a historic decision. The Vermont Senate is thought to be the only representative body in 20 years to vote to shut down a nuclear power plant, according to the New York Times.

In an unusual procedural maneuver, the Senate delivered an early knockout punch – denying the governor and the House an opportunity to weigh in on the license renewal for the plant this year – and for the time being blocking Entergy Corporation’s plans to keep Vermont Yankee open past its 40th year of operation and its sunset date of March 21, 2012. It’s possible, but in the current political climate unlikely, that the Legislature could reverse the decision and approve an extension before then.

In a statement issued after the vote, however, Entergy officials wrote, “We remain determined to prove our case to the Legislature, state officials and the Vermont public.”

The scene

The relicensing vote has galvanized environmental activists since a tritium leak was found at Vermont Yankee on Jan. 7. That month, a group of several hundred anti-nuclear activists walked from Barre to the state Capitol and held a rally in the Cedar Creek Room. (Statehouse staff vacuumed six bags of sand and grit out of the carpets afterward.)

Yesterday, several hundred anti-nuclear activists descended on the Statehouse, holding placards representing the concentrations of tritium found in groundwater monitoring wells located 30 feet to several hundred feet from the banks of the Connecticut River. Protesters swarmed inside the 19th century building and filled two overflow rooms downstairs where they watched a simulcast of the Senate proceedings on movie screens, compliments of The Burlington Free Press.

In the ornate anteroom to the second floor Senate Chamber, lobbyists, environmental advocates and protesters alike loitered for hours, chatting, listening to the debate on the public announcement system, tapping at laptops and staring at their smartphones as they sat in window seats and plush Victorian chairs.

The echo of shouts resounded through the building when activists in the downstairs overflow rooms cheered after the Senate voted to block relicensure of the plant.

Killing the bill

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The bill, S.289, stated that continued operation of the plant would be approved as long as it promotes “the general welfare of this state.” The way the bill was presented – as a statement of affirmation for renewal – meant that the Senate’s no vote essentially “killed the bill” (as pols say in the Statehouse) and denied Gov. Jim Douglas veto power.

Douglas minimized the impact of the no vote in an informal press conference with reporters. (See video.) “The Senate is free to express its opinion, but it has little practical impact because it confirms the status quo,” Douglas said. “Absent an affirmative vote from the Legislature, the Public Service Board is not authorized to issue a Certificate of Public Good. It doesn’t change where we were this morning. This is little more than political theater.”

He later admitted that in order to change the decision, another bill supporting Yankee would have to be drafted and supported by pro-Yankee lawmakers in a future, reconfigured Legislature. “This is no for now,” Douglas said. “It doesn’t change the law in any way and it can be revisited.” (Act 160, which says that Entergy can’t continue operate Vermont Yankee after the plant’s license expires in 2012 without “the explicit approval of the General Assembly,” remains intact.)

Douglas, a four-term governor, announced last August he would not run for re-election this year.

The Senate decision also nullifies any action that might be taken by the Vermont House. If there was support for a license extension in the House this session, it would be “foolhardy” for representatives to move a bill forward, knowing full well it would face a drubbing in the Senate, according to Rep. Floyd Nease, D-Johnson, the majority leader.

Entergy’s last-ditch effort

Entergy has been lobbying the Legislature to endorse relicensure of the plant for more than four years. In the end, though, the company’s recent missteps pushed senators to the tipping point. The leak of tritium-laden effluent into groundwater at the nuclear plant, and the latest revelations about the New Orleans-based company’s misstatements about the existence of underground pipes, which are the suspected sources of the contamination, cast doubt on the corporation’s ability to effectively manage the plant. In addition, senators expressed deep misgivings about the corporation’s decision to create the limited liability spinoff company known as Enexus for six aging nuclear reactors in the Northeast, including Vermont Yankee.

“If the board of directors (of Entergy) were thoroughly infiltrated by nuclear activists, I don’t think they could have done a better job of disassembling their own case,” Brock said.

In a last-ditch effort, Entergy sent its vice president for external affairs, Curt Hebert, on a damage control mission to the Statehouse the day before the vote. As he stood in front of the painting of the “Battle of Cedar Creek,” in which Union soldiers tie up Confederate prisoners, Hebert proffered Southern comfort to Vermont lawmakers in the form of a “gift,” as he put it, of 25 megawatts of 4-cent per kilowatt hour power to state utilities for three years. (The plant has a 620 megawatt capacity.)

The press conference, however, did little to sway senators’ inclination to vote against the bill.

Even champions of the plant, namely Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin-Grand Isle, and Sen. Hinda Miller, D-Chittenden, were nonplussed by the corporation’s behavior in light of the tritium leak and recent misstatements, and the formation of its debt-ridden spinoff company. They both nixed the relicensure proposal.

“If the board of directors (of Entergy) were thoroughly infiltrated by nuclear activists, I don’t think they could have done a better job of disassembling their own case,” Brock said.

Procedural maneuvering

Four candidates for governor were involved in the vote – Democratic Sens. Peter Shumlin, Susan Bartlett, Doug Racine — as well as Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, who presided over the Senate debate. The proceedings were polite, in spite of the opportunity for political posturing.

Party lines were blurred somewhat in the floor vote, and only a few pro-Yankee stalwarts – Sens. Bobby Starr, Peg Flory, Dick Mazza and Phil Scott – favored relicensing the plant in the voice vote held on the Senate floor.

A number of lawmakers yesterday said they had anticipated voting on Yankee in April, toward the end of the legislative session.

Senate President Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, orchestrated the procedural move that pushed the vote forward and caught some senators off guard, even those of his own party. A number of lawmakers yesterday said they had anticipated voting on Yankee in April, toward the end of the legislative session.

Sen. Peg Flory, D-Rutland, said she was “absolutely surprised” when she found out last week that the bill had been passed out of the Senate Finance Committee. She said she had been assured that they could take more testimony on the economic impacts of closing Vermont Yankee.

It came as less of a shock to Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, who said he was pleased that the debate was civil. “I don’t think it would have been brought to the floor had they not known what the outcome would be,” he said.

At first, Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille, who in a statement earlier this week favored taking more time to make a decision on Yankee, called it a “trick maneuver.” Bartlett said the Senate president told the committee chairs about his decision to move forward with a vote on relicensing Yankee an hour before his announcement in a press conference on Feb. 16.

“It’s not exactly a common procedure,” Bartlett said at the time. “Usually you want to get people out there together.”

On the final vote, however, Bartlett opposed the relicensing measure, calling the vote a “no-brainer” given Entergy’s handling of the tritium controversy.

A litany of woes

Common or not, feathers ruffled or smoothed, the decision, which after a daylong debate emerged as a vote of no confidence in Entergy Corporation’s management of the plant, was a fait accompli. Despite misgivings in the “rush to judgment,” as some deemed the vote, Republicans and Democrats alike gave the license extension a thumbs down.

The reasons cited for voting against relicensure were presented in almost liturgical fashion by the chairs of the Senate Finance and Natural Resource and Energy Committees.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, listed their committees’ litany of concerns, which included:

  • Maintenance problems at the plant, including a transformer fire in 2004 and a dramatic cooling water tower collapse in 2007
  • The 20 percent uprate that increased power generation at the plant from 530 megawatts to 620 megawatts in 2007, which Cummings compared to a “55-year-old running a marathon”
  • The reliability of the plant given its age (38 years of operation) and the list of 75 repairs not yet completed for an upgrade of the plant in anticipation of continued operation in 2012
  • The cost of decommissioning, which Fairewinds Associates determined would be more than double Entergy’s estimate of $400 million – before the tritium leak was discovered
  • Vermont Yankee’s profits are being funneled to Entergy without a set aside requirement for the decommissioning fund, which is designed to pay for the long-term costs of returning the site to a greenfield state and managing radioactive waste stored on the banks of the Connecticut River (two bills requiring that adequate funding be made available for decommissioning the plant were vetoed by the governor)
  • The spinoff deal with Enexus, not yet approved by regulators, which would be highly leveraged (the limited liability subsidiary would obtain loans in order to purchase the plants and pay out $4.5 billion to Entergy)
  • The lack of information from Entergy about the details of the spinoff plan
  • An unfavorable power purchase agreement price for Vermont utilities — Entergy’s offer of 6.1 cents per kilowatt is 50 percent higher than the current price of 4.2 cents

The crowning blow, however, discussed in the debate on the Senate floor, was the tritium leak at Vermont Yankee, in which one groundwater monitoring well has shown concentrations of the radioactive isotope as high as 2.5 million picocuries per liter. The leak may, according to state officials, take six months to a year to locate. Part of the problem in finding the source of the contaminating effluent is tied to Entergy officials’ misstatements about the existence of underground pipes on the site, which are suspected to be the source of the leak.

Cummings told lawmakers that her committee had taken testimony on reliability and financial issues for four years. She expressed regret that several hundred workers at Vermont Yankee would lose their jobs when the plant closes and said the plant would be phased out over five years. Vermont Yankee employs 650 workers; about 200 live in Vermont. Copies of an economic impact statement by the state of Maine before it shut down its nuclear power plant were made available to senators because a similar report that was supposed to be produced for Vermont Yankee wasn’t scheduled to be finished until April.

“We have laid off more state workers in the past year than we are talking about here,” Cummings said. “I didn’t hear let’s study the economic impact for six months for state workers.”

Cummings said even without the economic impact report, they had collected enough information to recommend that senators vote on relicensure.

The amendments

Sen. Phil Scott, R-Washington, a candidate for lieutenant governor, proposed an amendment to send the bill back to the Economic Development Committee for more testimony regarding the impact on the town of Vernon of closing the plant, and on the surrounding area and businesses in the state. He said businesses were “crying out to be heard.”

The amendment failed by a large margin.

In an interview, Scott said he thinks nuclear power should be part of a mix of energy sources, including wind, hydro and solar power, that helps the nation wean itself off of foreign oil. “I’m a proponent for becoming independent again,” Scott said.

Flory proposed an amendment for the construction of a second nuclear power plant on the Vernon site. She said the old plant could be phased out over 10 years while the new one is constructed.

“I understand some people don’t believe in nuclear power,” Flory said. “There’s nothing I can say to change their minds, and I respect their right to have that view. But there are many other people that believe nuclear power has a place in our energy portfolio.”

In an interview, Flory, whose son was a shop steward at Vermont Yankee before he moved to Tennessee to work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, described herself as “the skunk at the party.” She said if lawmakers are against Vermont Yankee just because it’s old, they should consider building a second plant.

“People want it both ways,” Flory said.

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Anne Galloway

About Anne

Anne Galloway is the founder and editor of VTDigger and the executive director of the Vermont Journalism Trust. Galloway founded VTDigger in 2009 after she was laid off from her position as Sunday editor of the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. VTDigger has grown from a $16,000 a year nonprofit with no employees to a $2 million nonprofit daily news operation with a staff of 25. In 2017, Galloway was a finalist for the Ancil Payne Award for Ethics, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOIA Award for her investigation into allegations of foreign investor fraud at Jay Peak Resort.

Email: [email protected]

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