As 40th anniversary of Vermont Yankee looms, protesters prepare to rally in Brattleboro

On the eve of Vermont Yankee’s license expiration, pressure is mounting.

A ruling Monday by federal Judge J. Garvan Murtha says the state cannot enforce a law prohibiting the plant from storing spent nuclear fuel at the site that was produced after the plant’s license expires Wednesday.

The 40-year saga of the nuclear power plant in Vernon is reaching an apex of sorts as opponents of the plant mount a protest Thursday for when they say the plant is operating without a license.

Deb Katz, executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, which has pushed for the plant’s closure since the 1990s, said an affiliation of groups called the SAGE Alliance plans to march to Entergy’s headquarters in Brattleboro Thursday and face arrest.

“People believe Entergy is in violation of the will of the people and the law of the state of Vermont,” Katz said. “Entergy’s time should be up, and they should leave the state. They should do the right thing and close.”

The plant’s continued operation depends on it getting a new license from the Public Service Board and what happens in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where both the State of Vermont and Entergy are appealing a decision by Judge Murtha that found state laws requiring legislative approval for the plant to continue operating.

State utilities’ contracts with Vermont Yankee expire this year also. Green Mountain Power has opted to replace much of the power it currently buys from Yankee with power from Seabrook Station nuclear plant in New Hampshire.

The Public Service Board issued an order Monday that denied Entergy’s request to remove the limit on spent nuclear fuel at Vermont Yankee.

The board’s decision states: “We deny Entergy VY’s first requested declaratory ruling because, for the reasons set forth above, [Vermont law] does not provide authority for Vermont Yankee to continue operating, and storing spent nuclear fuel derived from such operation, while Entergy VY’s petition for a new or amended CPG remains pending.”

The board’s decision says it is mindful that the Department of Public Service says Judge Murtha’s decision would prohibit the board from shutting the plant down March 21. The board wrote its order does not have the effect of shuttering the plant.

“Today’s Order does not purport nor is intended to require that Entergy VY cease operations at Vermont Yankee,” the board wrote.

The Public Service Board appears to be holding its ground, maintaining Vermont law cited by Entergy does not allow it to continue operating.

Sandra Levine, senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont, said the federal judge’s opinion will prevent the board from applying a specific provision in Vermont law regarding spent nuclear fuel, but the board’s order still requires the company to live up to obligations it made to the state.

“The bottom line is Judge Murtha’s order says the state can’t shut them down based on one provision in the statute,” Levine said. “The board’s order still requires Entergy to meet its obligations concerning storage of spent fuel.”

Another board order, separate from the law Judge Murtha said the board cannot enforce, only allows the plant to store fuel derived from operation up to March 21.

Entergy issued a statement showing it appears to be satisfied with Murtha’s decision.

“We are pleased Judge Murtha has issued an injunction against any action by Vermont to compel Vermont Yankee to shut down because of the storage of spent fuel from operation beyond March 21, 2012,” the statement reads. “We are reviewing the details of the judge’s decision as well as Monday’s order from the Vermont Public Service Board, and we are withholding further comments at this time.”

Beyond the legal wrangling, supporters and opponents of the plant’s continued operation are taking to the streets in their own ways.

On Saturday, supporters held a rally to support plant workers.

In addition to the civil disobedience planned for Thursday, groups will hold a “retirement party” for the plant at the Vermont Statehouse.

The plant opened on Nov. 30, 1972. Almost 30 years later, Vermont utilities tried to sell the plant to AmerGen, but the Public Service Board required an auction. In 2002, Entergy bought the plant and agreed to a memorandum of understanding that the license issued by the board only allowed the plant to operate up to March 21, 2012.

In 2006, the Vermont Legislature passed a law that required legislative approval for the Public Service Board to consider renewing the plant’s license. In 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to prohibit the board from ruling on a new license for the nuclear power plant.

That vote, according to Katz, set the stage.

“The vote in the 2010 Legislature was a really big day because the state of Vermont made the decision at that point to replace Vermont Yankee and to choose a sustainable energy future,” Katz said. “All of this falls from that vote.”

A cooling tower collapse in 2007 brought the company bad public relations, and admissions that plant officials misled the state about the existence of underground pipes carrying tritium, sparked further concerns.

But many Vermonters support the plant’s continued operation, despite the push by the state Legislature to shutter Vermont Yankee.

Guy Page, communications director for the Vermont Energy Partnership, a coalition that supports the plant’s continued operation, said the opposition in the state is not as strong as some would think.

“Polls of Vermonters about Vermont Yankee taken over the last three years shows what most of us already know: Vermont is split pretty much down the middle on the question of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation,” Page said. “We wish the protesters a calm and peaceful protest, and we hope they resist the temptation to claim they speak on behalf of ‘all Vermonters.’ They don’t.”

Page said, given the 1,000 jobs at the plant, its reliability and the determination by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission show its continued operation is in the public interest.

As for the planned protests Thursday, plant spokesman Larry Smith said the company would be prepared. Vermont Yankee issued a statement Tuesday.

“We greatly appreciate the backing of our supporters and respect the rights of opponents to peacefully protest,” the statement said. “Inside the gates our 650 employees will not be distracted. As they do every day, their focus on safety is laser sharp. Anything that occurs outside the property will be coordinated by local and state law enforcement authorities.”

Alan Panebaker

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