Vermont Yankee: Whose Choice?

The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been controversial ever since it was built in Vernon 40 years ago. Despite protests, the plant was licensed and built and began operations in 1972. As its license nears expiration, Vermonters have been debating whether the plant should be relicensed and continue to operate for another 20 years.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given Vermont Yankee the go-ahead. However, a Vermont state law requires a positive action by the legislature in order for the plant to continue operation. Entergy agreed to abide by this decision when it purchased the plant in 2002, but since state-level permission has not been granted, Entergy has decided to fight the state. The question is now in the courts.

Many arguments exist on both sides as to whether the plant should continue to operate or not. In a recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, 45 percent of Vermonters questioned supported the continued operation of the plant, while 41 percent said it should be shut down (15 percent were not sure).

Those who want the plant to continue have a primarily economic argument: we need the low-cost power, and hundreds of jobs are associated with the plant’s continued operation. Some also say that Vermont Yankee’s contribution to the New England grid is essential.

Those opposed to the plant generally focus on the nuclear waste that has to be stored for thousands of years; the issues that the plant has had, such as a collapsed cooling tower and tritium leaks; and the economic and environmental benefits of shifting to renewable energy for the future.

Personally, I am opposed to nuclear energy for three reasons. The first is that some of the “waste” generated by nuclear power plants is the foundation for building nuclear weapons. The second reason is that the nuclear waste generated by plants, even that which isn’t used for weapons, is radioactive for hundreds to thousands of years and can cause many problems for the people, animals and environment around it. The third is the possibility of major disaster. We need only pay attention to what is happening right now in Japan to see the potential calamity.

However, I find it interesting that the question in the courts really doesn’t consider these issues. Instead it is focused on this question: Does Vermont have the right to say no?

For that reason alone, I would support closing Vermont Yankee. Although I am no lawyer, this debate seems to be a classic state’s-rights issue. Does the state of Vermont have the right to decide whether a nuclear power plant will operate within its borders, or can the federal government override our legislature’s decision? Given that the feds have already reneged on their promise to find a way to deal with the waste, it just doesn’t seem fair that they can force us to accept continued production of this highly toxic material.

I know there is a more subtle question of whether Vermont’s reasons for saying no involved safety or reliability, but, in the end, it boils down to whether the state has the right to decide.

Of course, there is also the question of whether Entergy has the right to make their profits if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants them permission. This company is in a tough place right now with this plant. It has had to decide to refuel at a cost of $100 million, and now it is required to pay into the decommissioning fund – another $40 million – without knowing whether it will be able to continue running the plant after March of 2012. Should a company be expected to operate in a climate of uncertainty?

Yet it is Entergy themselves causing the uncertainty. Vermont has made its decision clear. Our legislature said no. Entergy is choosing to fight that decision and thus keep the question open. So, shouldn’t they have to shoulder the risk?

In the coming weeks, the court will be hearing the arguments. Whatever your position on the continued operation of the plant, pay attention to the question of what is within the state’s power to decide, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with federal agencies making these decisions for us.