Vermonters must weigh safety issue in court of public opinion

by Guy Page

Entergy and the State of Vermont recently debated in federal court in Brattleboro whether the State tried to legislate radiation safety at Vermont Yankee. Listeners heard audio clip after audio clip of legislative leaders discuss their concern about nuclear safety and their frustration about not being able to talk about it. The lawyer for Entergy said these statements show an attempt to legislate nuclear safety, which is forbidden by federal law. For its part, the State denied its numerous Vermont Yankee-related laws were motivated primarily by safety concerns.

A decision is expected before New Year’s. Most observers believe that whatever Judge J. Garvan Murtha decides, an appeal is likely. Regardless of the near-term decision, Vermonters sitting as judges in the court of public opinion should weigh two fundamental issues: “Is the plant safe? And should it be part of our energy future?”

The Vermont Energy Partnership has steadfastly maintained that all Vermont-based power generators (including Vermont Yankee) must first and foremost be operated safely. Human life is more important than jobs, or transmission reliability, or tax revenue, or anything else. For this very reason the Partnership supports Vermont Yankee’s continued operation under federal oversight.

No-one has ever died from radiation exposure from an American commercial nuclear power In 50 years of real-time operation. This perfect score is not coincidental. It is a real-time, real-world product of decades of day in, day out hands-on oversight and compliance.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, federal regulators have a strong nuclear safety record. States’ rights, on the other hand, may seem a good short-term strategy to close Vermont Yankee, but it is potentially disastrous for nuclear safety. Some states might maintain safety or just close their plants, but all 50 states? Should politicians like disgraced ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagoyevich be permitted to oversee nuclear safety? The balkanization of nuclear plant safety cannot lead anywhere but downhill. Nuclear safety belongs in the steady hands of nonpartisan, trained scientist/regulators, not state politicians. This benefits even “anti-nuke” states that buy power from out-of-state nuclear power plants – as has Vermont, with the Seabrook power plant.

Despite its many critics, Vermont Yankee’s actual safety record is excellent. The NRC announced this spring, at the conclusion of an exhaustive five-year license renewal process, that the plant is safe to operate for another 20 years. Contrary to myth the NRC does not rubberstamp potential licenses. Other American plants have shut down rather than even apply, after being told by the NRC that they would face an uphill battle. Facing intense, impartial scrutiny, Vermont Yankee has passed with flying colors.

Our governor, by contrast, recently demanded safety-related measures for a problem that his own scientists said was unrelated to Vermont Yankee. And unlike the State, the NRC has two full-time safety inspectors posted at the plant. Their vigilance is ongoing.

Safety planning also must consider our planet’s changing climate. During Hurricane Irene, most Vermont hydro power plants shut down. Operators of the Marshfield Dam were sufficiently concerned about possible failure that they evacuated 300 families living downstream. The dam held, and the contingency planning was prudent and well-considered; no-one was at imminent risk. Meanwhile Vermont Yankee operated 24/7 without safety issues. Vermont energy producers must run safely and reliably during storms, preventing both catastrophe and life-threatening power blackouts.

In terms of carbon and toxic emissions, Vermont’s very clean portfolio is truly at a crossroads. Will we replace this power mostly with natural gas and even some coal-fired electricity? If so, environmentally-progressive Vermont will regress, particularly in the near-term.

The reality is that Vermont Yankee is safe and important for the state’s economy and environment. Vermonters will benefit if more state policy makers recognize the plant’s integral role in the state’s energy future.

Guy Page is the Communications Director of the Vermont Energy Partnership, a Montpelier-based educational and advocacy not-for-profit organization comprised of about 90 members, including Entergy.

Guy Page

Communications Director

Vermont Energy Partnership