Proposed nuke panel shakeup irks senator

Mark MacDonald_
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange. File photo by Morgan True/VTDigger
BRATTLEBORO — A planned reshuffling of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel could bolster Windham County’s representation.

But the changes also would remove a longtime state lawmaker — Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange — from the panel. And MacDonald, a frequent critic of Vermont Yankee, is objecting to the idea that the advisory group needs a different legislative perspective.

While acknowledging that the change is “not personal,” MacDonald added: “I’m the outsider. They want someone more provincial.”

Panel Chairwoman Kate O’Connor responded by saying the advisory panel needs a stronger legislative presence, especially as regulatory reviews begin for the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee.

“From my perspective, it’s very important that the Legislature – both the House and Senate – understand that what is going on at Yankee is important to Windham County and is important to the entire state,” O’Connor said.

The Legislature created the 19-member citizens advisory panel in 2014. It is the successor to the seven-member Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, which had been functioning since Entergy bought Vermont Yankee in 2002.

The larger citizens advisory panel was designed to focus on issues of decommissioning. In addition to advising the governor, Legislature and state agencies, the panel is supposed to “serve as a conduit for public information and education on and to encourage community involvement in matters related to the decommissioning” of Vermont Yankee.

It held its first meeting in September 2014, three months before the Vernon plant stopped producing power.

While some faces have changed since that time, the basic structure of the panel – in terms of the entities and agencies that are represented – has remained the same.

But O’Connor now wants to shake that up a bit.

Under her proposal, the panel’s two legislators would no longer be representatives of the House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy committees. That’s in part because that House committee doesn’t exist anymore, with its duties having been reassigned at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session.

In place of those two members, O’Connor wants to add three local legislators to the panel: There would be a senator from Windham County appointed by the Senate president pro tem; a legislator from Windham County appointed by the House speaker; and the state representative from Vernon.

That structure would retain Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, on the panel. Hebert previously had been a member due to his seat on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

But O’Connor’s proposal would boot MacDonald – a 30-year veteran of the Legislature and a former member of the state’s previous nuclear advisory panel – due to his lack of connection to Windham County.

In announcing her idea at Thursday’s VNDCAP meeting, O’Connor made a point of looking toward MacDonald and saying that “it’s nothing personal.”

Instead, she cited Entergy’s plan to sell Vermont Yankee to the New York-based decommissioning company NorthStar, which requires an in-depth review by federal and state regulators.

“I think we need Windham County legislators involved,” O’Connor said. “Windham County legislators who are able to convey to their colleagues what’s important to us in this transaction moving forward.”

In a later interview, O’Connor also said she wants a “consistent presence” from lawmakers on the advisory panel. Though she did not single anyone out, neither of Vermont’s legislative representatives has regularly attended VNDCAP meetings to date.

When MacDonald is in attendance, he tends to be the harshest Entergy critic on the panel. On Thursday night, he offered a long speech criticizing the plant’s owner for not undertaking immediate decommissioning.

And MacDonald expressed skepticism that NorthStar – which is supposed to accelerate Vermont Yankee decommissioning by decades – can follow through on its promises.

In a subsequent interview, MacDonald also was critical of the advisory panel. He pointed out that there already are a number of Windham County representatives on the panel, and he compared the mood on the advisory body to Stockholm syndrome – a psychological condition in which a captive begins to trust and identify with his or her captor.

For all the talk of examining NorthStar’s finances, “there was very little discussion of the evidence of Vermont Yankee officials and the representations they have made over the years,” MacDonald said.

O’Connor countered that the advisory panel consistently has taken a detailed look at decommissioning and has at times taken positions contrary to those of the plant’s owner.

“I disagree that there’s one voice on that panel, and I disagree with the premise that the panel sees everything the way either Entergy or NorthStar does,” O’Connor said.

There was general agreement among VNDCAP members that O’Connor’s proposed structural change was the right move. No one voted against the plan, though four representatives of state agencies joined MacDonald in abstaining.

The final word belongs to the Legislature, since the law creating the advisory panel would have to be changed. O’Connor, who was re-elected as the panel’s chairwoman Thursday, said she would ask members of Windham County’s delegation to introduce such legislation.

“We don’t know where this is going to go in the Legislature,” she said. “We may have a change. We may not.”

MacDonald said he thinks the restructuring “isn’t likely to happen.” However, he pledged to abstain from voting if the matter comes up in the Senate.

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  • Kim Fried

    Good move. Returning decision making to the citizens and communities most impacted is exactly what Vermont needs more of. These are the citizens closest to the issues and it’s a shame that some people don’t trust or believe these citizens are smart, knowable and will make the best decisions for Vermont

  • stephen whitaker

    How ironic that Kate O’Conner is so concerned about oversight when she has been one of the ‘placeholder’ members of the Enhanced 911 Board yet not personally attended a meeting in that last year or two.

    During this time and prior the lack of E911 Board member due diligence, technical capacity, statutory independent expert review, conflicts of interest and refusal to promulgate rules under the Administrative Procedures Act has let that critical public safety run into the proverbial ditch.

    Joining a conference call occasionally, when a quorum is needed to vote the way your are told to by a staff member or FairPoint executive, is not what is the purpose of a Town representative on the Enhanced 911 Board.

    We need real oversight by independent thinking people to remedy years of neglect.
    Senator MacDonald should continue to participate, inquire and exert skeptical review of the Yankee cleanup which is a radiological hazard affecting all Vermonters.

  • I’m confused as to the abstentions. I read no reason for Mark (MacDonald) or the state reps to not participate in the vote.

    • Steven Farnham


      Unless he owns stock in Yankee, or some business involved in its Decommissioning, why shouldn’t he vote on a bill related to the committee restructuring? Isn’t part of representing your state’s interest being able to vote on who acts in that interest? I have always found Sen. MacDonald to be among the best we have in the Senate. Apparently the people in Orange who keep returning him to office agree. If he wants to continue this work, I support his continued involvement in it.

  • Richard M Roderick

    This is classic, Don’t like what the dissenter is saying, well remove him so we can get on with our business.

  • Like in human resources, it’s tough to disentangle personalities from positions. The proposal makes sense to me — despite my personal respect for Mark MacDonald who has spent decades putting Vermont citizens first against the nuclear industry & NRC.
    On the other hand, I have seen Vernon Rep. Mike Hebert at only 2 meetings; he doesn’t even bother to call in. Yet the nuke is in Vernon, so a Vernon rep should have a seat at the table. (And I am a supporter of the idea that boards should release members from service when they do not fulfill their obligations, but there is no contingency for that in the panel’s bylaws).
    With the sale looming, and decommissioning perhaps to be complete in our lifetime’s and on our watch, having Windham County Senator & Rep on the panel make sense to me.

  • gary sachs

    Senator Mark MacDonald has been at these VSNAP, VNDCAP meetings since the nineties.
    Senator Mark’s voice of experience is unequaled in the legislature now.

    I would propose adding local legislators who care about this issue.

    First you must find local legislators that give a care bout this issue
    enough to learn up on it. Good luck with that. I haven’t seen it yet.

    Then they can come to meetings or comment on ongoing issues.
    I eagerly await this occurrence.