Nuclear plant’s future remains up in the air

MIDDLEBURY — Local lawmakers continue to be concerned about the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant owner’s ongoing legal fight to remain open and to remain part of the state’s long-term energy future.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell on Feb. 17 announced that he will appeal a federal district court judge’s ruling that gave new hope to Entergy Nuclear’s quest to keep its Vernon-based power plant open.
State lawmakers had opted to allow the aging plant’s license to expire this year, but Entergy has been seeking a 20-year renewal. Vermont Yankee supplies roughly a third of the state’s power, though state officials have been working to replace that source through new energy contracts with HydroQuebec, more imported electricity from out-of-state and development of more renewable energy sources, among other things.
Judge J. Garvin Murtha last month ruled that federal law in this case pre-empts state law when it comes to matters of nuclear power regulations and safety concerns.
Some lawmakers and local citizens assembled at last Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Middlebury American Legion voiced concerns about VY’s ongoing operation and the fact that Entergy had not yet amassed the funding necessary to decommission (close and make arrangements for irradiated equipment and fuel) the plant.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, is a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Commission. She placed the VY decommissioning fund’s balance at around $435 million to $485 million — far short of the $900 million officials believe is needed to safely close the plant.
Vergennes resident Jim Sullivan suggested the state look for a buyer for VY — “someone we trust” — to provide better oversight of the decommissioning fund and resolve safety concerns at the plant that might allow it to stay open for another 20 years.
But several local lawmakers said they would prefer to see the plant close and focus on efforts to make sure the site is safe and secured.
“In order to sell it, (VY) has to be an asset someone would want to acquire,” said Democratic Rep. David Sharpe of Bristol, noting the plant’s 40-year age and recent history of leaks.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said Entergy has not “placed a dime” in the decommissioning fund since acquiring VY in 2002.
“Their plan to make up the half-billion or so dollars is to let Wall Street deliver, and it makes no sense,” Jewett said. “It can’t be done, as far as I can tell, if you study inflation and the expected rate of return on this thing.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said VY’s decommissioning fund “has shown the same stress as all of our retirement funds and investment funds have shown during the past few years.”
He noted a proposal to mothball the plant, let it sit for 20 to 40 years, and allow the decommissioning fund grow for the closure process.
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, questioned whether the state really needs power from VY and urged the state to explore more opportunities to use natural gas. He noted that while the cost of other energy sources has been increasing dramatically, natural gas prices have declined to the tune of 37 percent during the past year.
“There are natural gas generating electric plants that are providing plenty of inexpensive energy that Vermont is tapping into because we are part of a New England-wide grid,” Ralston said, while acknowledging the need to ensure the state does not support the process of hydrofracking in the search for natural gas.
He added that maintaining the status quo with VY would likely require the construction of large electricity transmission towers and associated lines through Addison County to get to the growth centers of Chittenden County.
“If you didn’t like the (Vermont Electric Power Co.) project a few years ago, you’re not going to like the next expansion,” Ralston said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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