Lawmakers discuss future of Vermont Yankee

VERGENNES — The future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the state’s budget crunch continue to dominate the Vermont Legislature’s agenda, local lawmakers announced as they began their weeklong break on Monday for town meetings.
The Vermont Senate on Feb. 24 voted 26 to 4 against the notion of granting a 20-year operating extension to the Vernon-based reactor once its current license expires in 2012. The vote came in the wake of a leak of radioactive tritium at the Vermont Yankee site and amid concerns over the business plan the plant’s owner — New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. — has proposed for the next two decades.
Sens. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, and Harold Giard, D-Bridport, voted with the majority in the vote against Vermont Yankee. The measure is not expected to go to the House, given the fact that the Senate has now weighed in against re-licensing.
Lawmakers discussed Vermont Yankee and other Statehouse issues at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Vergennes Legion Hall.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, said Entergy officials recently tried to improve Vermont Yankee’s standing by offering a short-term bargain for electricity. That proposed deal amounted to 25 megawatts of power (2 percent of the state’s total needs) at current rates, for three years, according to Senate Democrats who spearheaded the Feb. 24 vote. The remaining power beyond that would be offered at 6 cents per kWh, translating into a 50-percent increase from the current rate, according to Senate leaders.
“They have tried to bribe us,” said Nuovo, a member of the House Natural resources and Energy Committee. “(Entergy officials) shot themselves in the foot by not telling the truth on (Vermont Yankee’s) pipes, and now they’ve tried to bribe us, so they’ve really shot themselves in the stomach. So they are pretty ill at this time.”
Without Vermont Yankee online, Vermont would be forced to look elsewhere for roughly one-third of its annual electricity portfolio. Some local lawmakers said they are confident that Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power will be able to fill in the gaps with hydropower and other reliable energy sources.
But some area residents are wondering if the state should give up entirely on nuclear power.
“We all understand that Vermont Yankee is an antiquated, perhaps unsafe facility because of age,” said Waltham resident Terry Evarts at Monday’s breakfast. “What I am wondering is that in some circles in Montpelier, there must be some discussion of the idea of nuclear power in general being considered in Vermont. What is the possibility of replacing the plant with a new plant and new technology?”
Nuovo said there is a bill in the Legislature that proposes to keep Vermont Yankee in use until a new nuclear plant could be erected at the same site. But she envisioned little support for such an initiative, given the cost of building a new plant and the problems of disposing of uranium.
Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, agreed.
“There are some serious questions about the economic viability of building new nuclear plants,” Maier said. “It takes many billions of dollars to build new ones. However, they are building new ones across the globe.”
Maier noted that President Barack Obama recently spoke in support of subsidizing efforts to build new nuclear facilities in the U.S.
“But given the large economic costs, I would much rather see large subsidies, if we are going to do them, go to renewables and other energy sources.”
Maier said the state should consider the Vermont Yankee site’s ability to host alternative energy systems.
“There is a growing discussion on if we close the nuclear part of it, how could we use the remaining infrastructure to generate electricity in some other way,” Maier said. 
Weybridge resident Spence Putnam said the Legislature should now turn the page on Vermont Yankee and focus on developing renewables and energy conservation policies.
“I think this is a particularly good time to do that, because we do have a low demand on energy right now so this a great time to work on alternatives.” Putnam said.
BUDGET SHORTFALL
Lawmakers also updated residents on the challenges of bridging what began as a $150 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2011 budget. Thanks to a lot of cuts, tweaks and revenue adjustments, lawmakers have whittled that shortfall down to around $20 million, according to Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln.
“We have been making (budget) decisions that have a real impact, and we are not moving forward on some things,” Fisher said of the cuts. “Unfortunately, this is going to continue for a couple more years, I’m afraid.”
He cited cuts in transportation for dialysis patients as among the proposed budget casualties this year.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, said it’s becoming clear the state will need to re-examine the way it funds education. Too many households, he said, are receiving property tax relief under income sensitivity provisions of the law, and it is sapping resources.
“We are in big, big trouble in the education fund,” said Clark, a teacher and member of the House Education Committee. “It’s time to take a look at the system.”
The next legislative breakfast will be held at the American Legion hall in Bristol on Monday, March 8, with the program beginning at 7:30 a.m. The featured speaker will be Gov. James Douglas.
John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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