Vermont: How One Word Created Years of Political Controversy

For years, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been one of the top topics of debate in Vermont politics. This year, Vermont's lone ...
by | January 5, 2010

For years, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been one of the top topics of debate in Vermont politics. This year, Vermont's lone nuclear plant probably is the top issue in the state, as lawmakers weigh whether to extend operations of the plant beyond 2012, when its license expires.

Vermont Yankee is a big deal in the governor's race, with each of the Democratic candidates arguing that the life of the plant, which supplies a third of the state's power, shouldn't be extended. In contrast, Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, the likely Republican nominee, appears sympathetic to Vermont Yankee's continued operations (just like Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, who is retiring)

Why is Vermont Yankee such a perennial big issue in state politics? There are obvious answers to that question. The fiscal and environmental wisdom of nuclear power is always debated, especially outside of the Southeast (where it has broad acceptance). Lawmakers want to know whether the plant will be safe and whether it represents the smartest way for Vermont to acquire the energy it needs.

There's another less obvious answer, however. Legislators are debating the future of Vermont Yankee because of the unintended consequence (at least I think it's unintended) of the particular way that a 1970s state law was written.

If you know how nuclear power regulation works in the United States, you're probably asking a question right now: Why does the Vermont legislature have anything to do with whether a nuclear plant continues operation? While state and local governments play a pretty big role in determining where nuclear plants are built, they don't typically play much of role in determining whether existing plants keep operating. That's  under the purview of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Vermont, in fact, is the only state in the country where the state legislature has a role in determining whether a plant keeps operating. The reason has to do with one word in an old state law. A January 2005 article in the Burlington Free Press (no link available) explained:

A single word in a 1977 law created the platform for this fresh debate about nuclear power and its place in Vermont's energy future.

That year, lawmakers passed a bill requiring any plan storing nuclear waste in Vermont to be approved by the Legislature. They granted one exemption: for temporary storage by the "Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation."

I don't know all the history of this law, but the circumstances look pretty clear. Vermont lawmakers didn't want just anyone to start storing nuclear waste in their state, at least not without their explicit permission. So, they wrote a law that said that. But, of course, they didn't mind if their existing nuclear power plant stored waste, so they exempted Vermont Yankee.

The key, though, is that they didn't exempt the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Instead, they exempted the "Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation." That probably seemed like a distinction without a difference 30 years ago. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation ran the Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant.

But, in 2002 the plant was sold to Entergy. Entergy, of course, wasn't mentioned under the law. That became significant because Vermont Yankee was running out of space in its indoor cooling pools. To keep operating, the plant needed to engage in above-ground dry-cask storage -- storage that the law said would be fine for the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation, but for which Entergy had to ask the legislature for permission. Here's more from that Burlington Free Press article:

Entergy would like lawmakers simply to amend the 1977 law, to exempt the nuclear power "station" rather than the "corporation" from oversight of its waste storage.

"We'd like them to change just one little word," Yankee spokesman Brian Cosgrove said.

The legislature did grant them permission, but only through 2012. That gave the state, not just the NRC, the power to determine whether Vermont Yankee would continue operations beyond its original 40-year license.

Later, that authority morphed into a two-part state reauthorization process that also includes the state Public Service Board. But, the basic story remains the same. The legislature acquired a power that no other one in the country possesses (and acquired a political debate over reauthorization that has raged ever since), all because of a quirk in a decades-old law. "We're the only one in the nation," State Representative Tony Klein, Chairman of the Vermont House's Natural Resources and Energy Committee, told me, "because we're smart and we had the leverage to do it."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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