Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
David O'Brien, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, was kind enough to respond to my post on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in a comment:
Just to clarify the record on this issue. The decades old law regarding storage of nuclear waste does not require the Vermont General Assembly to vote on continued operation of Vermont Yankee past 2012. The Legislature gave themselves that responsibility in 2005 when they granted Entergy the right to store waste in dry casks on the Vernon site.
One could certainly read from the original language that the intention was that the current nuclear facility could store the waste. This language was added at that time to make it clear that any new sites that would store waste would need legislative approval. This was because there was interest by the federal government to find places to store spent fuel from multiple reactors and VT's granite quarries were considered as possible sites. Unfortunately, as you point out, the grandfather language was limited to the original owner, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp.
We argued at the time that the intent was clear and that without the ability to store waste in dry casks the plant would be forced to cease operating prior to 2012, and therefore VT ratepayers would have lost millions because their utilities would have to buy more expensive power on the market from 2007 and beyond.
The Legislature decided to utilize the leverage they had at the time to bargain for payments to the Clean Energy Development Fund and to add language requiring a legislative vote on continued operation past 2012.
So, Vermont legislators who are skeptical of nuclear power were able to leverage (if you'll forgive me for using leverage as a verb) a law designed to block federal nuclear repositories into something completely different: power over whether the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant continues operations.
From these legislators perspective, they cleverly found a way to provide the oversight over nuclear power that Vermont residents deserve. From the perspective of Commissioner O'Brien's boss, Gov. Jim Douglas, these legislators are meddling in decisions that they aren't qualified to make and are endangering a source of cheap, clean energy. Regardless, these legislators actions made Vermont Yankee a defining political issue in the state ever since.
One thing I should have mentioned in my previous post is that it's possible the lawmakers overreached. If the legislature doesn't allow Vermont Yankee to continue to operate, Entergy likely would sue. Their argument would be that the Vermont legislature, clever or not, was making policy in an area where the federal government, not the states, have responsibility.
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