State legislators in Vermont are the only ones in the country with authority to vote on whether a nuclear power plant can continue in operation. Lawmakers are playing that card for all it's worth.
The license of Vermont Yankee, the state's lone nuclear facility, expires in March 2012. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission looks favorably on renewal for another 20 years. Almost anywhere else, that would be the end of the story. But in Vermont, the legislature has a role. Why? Largely because the legislature gave itself one.
In 2005, Entergy, the parent company of Vermont Yankee, asked lawmakers for permission to begin storing spent nuclear fuel above ground because it was running out of space within the plant. The legislature agreed, but only through 2012. By doing that, it gave itself the right to revoke the permission in 2012 and possibly force the plant to cease operations. Later, the legislature expanded its power by putting in place a two-step recertification process. For Vermont Yankee to continue operations after 2012, the legislature will first have to vote to forward a recertification request to the state Public Service Board, which then will issue its own ruling.
The legislature already has started using its power with gusto, looking at everything from the plant's safety to its financial reserves. Vermont Yankee's supporters think lawmakers are just seeking excuses to reject renewal. "The legislature keeps moving the goal posts," says Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican. "I think they need to be honest and state their philosophical objections to nuclear power and have a vote up or down."
Many lawmakers in the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature acknowledge that they do have philosophical objections to nuclear power. Vermont has a long history of nuclear skepticism: The original bill to build Vermont Yankee survived by a single vote four decades ago. Still, legislators are torn. Vermont Yankee provides 650 jobs and one-third of the state's energy, at relatively cheap prices.
Whether those prices remain cheap may be the biggest sticking point. Lawmakers want a 20-year agreement on the price at which the plant will sell power to the state's utilities before they'll vote to allow the Public Service Board to consider recertification. But negotiations on the price agreement have stalled, as Entergy and state officials struggle to find a deal that is profitable for the company and advantageous for Vermont's ratepayers. The politics of the matter don't look good for Entergy. All of the Democratic candidates running for governor this year have come out against allowing the plant to continue operations.
If the legislature doesn't vote to renew, though, that might not be the end of the story. No one is quite sure whether federal courts will look kindly on the authority Vermont's lawmakers have seized for themselves.