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Editorial: Pulling the Plug; Concerns Remain About Vt. Yankee

Problem solved? We’re not so sure.

Just two weeks ago, Vermont learned that its attempt to pull the plug on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant would not pass court muster. In upholding a lower court decision, the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Vermont Legislature did an atrocious job of disguising the fact that concern about radiological safety was its motivation in refusing to extend the plant’s license — and that such concern fell exclusively within federal jurisdiction. That meant that the state’s more-than-justifiable concerns about the plant operator’s track record — leaking pipes, collapsing cooling towers, inaccurate legislative testimony — and about the accumulating pile of highly radioactive waste would have to be left in the hands of federal regulators. The problem is that the track record of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspired no more confidence. And the plant operator, Entergy Corp., wanted to keep the aging plant cranking for another 20 years.

After battling the state of Vermont for years and earning full vindication in court, Louisiana-based Entergy announced yesterday that it had changed its mind: It would operate the plant for only one more fuel cycle — probably until the end of 2014 — and eventually get around to decommissioning. Entergy officials attributed the decision to market conditions — the downward pressure on energy prices exerted by the ample supply of natural gas made possible by fracking; the high operating costs of Vermont Yankee; and “wholesale market design flaws” that keep energy prices artificially low and inadequately compensate plants such as Vermont Yankee — none of which seems particularly new.

Many, if not most, Vermonters will be heartened by the announcement. You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution to harbor legitimate fears about an aging nuclear plant that has the same design as the Fukushima site that failed so spectacularly in Japan in 2011 and that seems to be crumbling before our eyes.

But Vermont will continue to play host to an aging nuclear plant for years to come, albeit one that is no longer pumping out power. Decommissioning takes years. Meanwhile, the plant will still have spent nuclear fuel stored on site, it will still be under the control of Entergy, and Vermonters (not to mention nearby residents in New Hampshire and Massachusetts) will still be dependent on the vigilance of the NRC.

Regarding decommissioning, the statement issued by Entergy yesterday said there was $582 million in the trust fund — $16 million more than the NRC minimum. Some, including nuclear critic Arnie Gundersen, believe that won’t prove nearly enough. How ever long it takes to make the site safe after Vermont Yankee has been closed down — Gundersen predicted 20 years in an interview with Seven Days — the plant will have to be monitored.

Not surprisingly, a number of groups and politicians called for intense state vigilance. “We will have a weather eye on the decommissioning process, and will stand ready to steer the process as forcefully as is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal: returning the Vernon site to greenfield status,” said Vermont Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor County.

That’s sensible, but the ruling issued by the appeals court seems to indicate that decommissioning is also exclusively a federal matter. The court rejected the state’s argument that the looming liability for decommissioning the plant gave it an economic justification for regulating Vermont Yankee. The state had no role to play, the court ruled, because the NRC establishes the rules for determining the adequacy of the trust fund set up to to pay for decommissioning. That leaves the state with little say in the process beyond its right to plead its case to federal regulators.

By the end of next year, in other words, Vermont will still have an aging nuclear power plant and legitimate concerns about its future — and precious little influence about what that future will bring.