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The small New England state of Vermont is battling the U.S. government over control of the state’s lone nuclear power plant. A federal court denied the state’s recent attempt to shut down the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant for safety concerns. Vermont lawmakers must now decide if they want to appeal the decision and risk a high stakes legal fight that could affect how the nuclear energy industry is regulated.
In 2010 the Vermont Senate voted not to renew the plant’s operating license after 2012, claiming that the plant’s owner, Entergy, had falsified reports and ignored operational problems. Entergy sued the state claiming that they were attempting to override the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency’s decision that the plant was safe to continue operating. Entergy said only the federal government, not individual states, can evaluate plant safety.
U.S. District Judge Garvan Murtha sided with Entergy, saying that despite the state’s claim that it was troubled by operational mismanagement at the plant, their real motive was concern over safety. Murtha noted in his decision that transcripts of the Vermont Senate debates leading up to their vote to close the plant were filled with discussion of the plant’s safety, particularly with references to reports of radioactive tritium leaking into the nearby Connecticut River.
Environmental activists and a majority of state lawmakers had been pushing to shut down Vermont Yankee for many years, but their concerns took on a new urgency with the disaster at Japan’s Fukishima Daiichi plant in 2011. The Fukishima reactors were similar in design to Vermont Yankee’s, and the Connecticut River, which would absorb most of the radiation if a major leak occurred, flows through densely populated areas in western Massachusetts and Connecticut before emptying into Long Island Sound near New York City.
Supporters for keeping the plant open say the state and regional power grids need the electricity it produces to hold down energy costs. Others say that the overall safety record at the plant is good, and that nuclear power must be part of the alternative energy mix if the US is going to reduce its dependence on oil and coal burning plants. Critics argue that continuing to operate a leaky, 40-year-old nuclear reactor is not a smart way to fight global warming.
Vermont can appeal the court’s decision or it can attempt to have its public service board, which regulates energy prices, impose restrictions on the plant that would make it too expensive to operate. But either approach is likely to trigger a legal battle with Entergy, a national corporation with very deep pockets that operates nuclear plants throughout the country.
The state has already spent millions trying to shut the plant down without success, and after the court ruled in Entergy’s favor, the company has now demanded that the state reimburse its $4.6 million in legal costs. Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, who just completed his first year in office, sided with environmental activists during his campaign, and has vowed to continue his efforts to close the plant despite the setback.
But Shumlin’s political opponents and Vermont business leaders say the state’s fragile economy cannot afford the jolt in energy prices that would occur if Vermont Yankee were to stop operating. With Vermont facing a $176 million deficit and still repairing the damage from Hurricane Irene last August, the state should cut its losses and give up the fight, they say.
So far, Shumlin and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell have remained silent on their next move. Backing down might make financial sense, but it would also strike a significant blow against states trying to regulate nuclear power plants within their borders. With the Obama administration promoting nuclear power as a key component of its strategy to rebuild America’s energy infrastructure, their decision could have far reaching consequences.
Image Courtesy of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (United States Nuclear Regulatory Comission) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons