By a decisive 26-4 margin, the Vermont Senate today voted to deny Vermont Yankee a chance to receiving a 20-year license extension to continue operating the 620 megawatt nuclear power plant beyond 2012.
At least for now.
The vote came after nearly three-and-a-half hours of debate — and three failed attempts to derail the bill — before a Senate chamber packed largely with VY opponents, some of whom had trekked north from Brattleboro to witness the vote.
The Vermont legislature is the only elected body that has been given the authority to give an up or down vote on the future of nuclear power plant. Not surprisingly, all eyes were on Montpelier yesterday.
The Senate's action comes one week after Pres. Barack Obama announced billions in federal loan guarantees to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia. The vote is seen as a rebuke of that effort.
Not so, said Sen. President Peter Shumlin (D-Windham). "This was not a debate about new nukes versus old nukes, this was a vote about old nukes," he said.
At the outset, and then hours later, Shumlin urged his colleagues to "show political courage" and vote against relicensure.
Sen. Susan Bartlett, a rival in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, said the vote was not an act of courage — like, for example, same-sex marriage — but a "no-brainer" given Entergy's misleading statements and ongoing mishaps at the plant and major questions about the proposed spin-off deal to sell Vermont Yankee to a shell corporation, Enexus.
Bartlett voted against all measures designed to delay the vote, despite a statement she released over the weekend, where she called on her colleagues to take more time before making a stand.
Senators repeatedly said ongoing problems at Vermont Yankee raise doubts about the plant's reliability, and various misleading statements by Entergy officials to state regulators and lawmakers raise doubts about the company's trustworthiness.
The outcome was never in doubt, but questions lingered going into yesterday's vote if there would be enough support to send the bill back to committee. Democrats have a significant majority in the Senate, holding 23 of the 30 seats.
In the end, the only Senators to vote in favor of letting the Vermont Public Service Board issue a license extension for Vermont Yankee were Sens. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), Dick Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle), Phil Scott (R-Washington), and Robert Starr (D-Orleans).
At one point during the debate, Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) attempted to offer an amendment that would have also granted a green light for VY's relicensure, but with strict conditions that the PSB would have to include on any final certificate of public good. Those conditions included ensuring that Entergy would be on the hook for any decommissioning costs, and providing cheaper power than it has previously agreed to sell to Vermont utilities. That measure failed 25-5.
A third attempt by Sen. Flory called on the Senate to give a green light to building a new nuclear power plant at the Vernon reactor site, and allowing Vermont Yankee to continue operation for 10 years, or until the new plant is built, whichever comes first. That measure failed 24-6. Sens. Flory, Mullin, Scott and Starr were joined by Sens. Bill Carris (D-Rutland) and Randy Brock (R-Franklin).
A vote to send the bill to the Senate Economic Development Committee for further study — largely to gauge the impact of the plant's shutdown on Vermont's economy — was also rebuffed by a 24-6 margin. Sens. Brock, Flory, Mazza, Mullin, Scott and Starr voted to send the bill back to committee. Interestingly, the chairman of the committee in question — Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans) — voted against his committee taking up the bill.
As the debate wound down on the final vote, the final three senators to weigh in were (in this order): Bartlett, Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) and Sen. Shumlin. All three are running for governor.
On the opposite side, the most vocal proponent of taking more time was Sen. Scott, who is running for lieutenant governor.
"This vote today is purely political," said Scott.
His GOP challenger — Mark Snelling — stood along the wall during the debate. Snelling, too, had urged the senate to take more time before voting. His sister, Sen. Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) voted against the amendments and against relicensure.
In his closing statement, Racine said his "no" vote was to ensure, "we are not leaving a legacy of unknown costs to future generations, but a legacy of sane energy future."
After the vote, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, a Republican and gubernatorial hopeful, said he was disappointed that the senate decided to take a vote before "all the facts are in."
"There are huge questions left to be answered," said Dubie, "and some of the people who would be affected by this decision were not allowed to weigh in. This vote has huge implications for the workers at Vermont Yankee and subcontractors. To say they can just go get a job somewhere else isn't a plan."
Vermont Yankee employs 650 workers, about a third of whom live in Vermont. Another few hundred subcontractors rely on Vermont Yankee, as well, according to a recent study commissioned by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Dubie said the seven-member Senate Finance Committee has no Republicans, which concerned him. He said he tried to get a Republican seated on the committee, but was outvoted 2-1. Dubie sits on the select Committee of Committees which makes committee assignments.
That lack of bipartisan representation on the committee, Dubie said, means that opposing viewpoints are often ignored.
After the vote, Gov. Jim Douglas told a small group of reporters that its outcome was predictable.
"The Senate is free to express its sentiment, but today's vote has little practical and legal impact," said Douglas. In fact, he said, it maintains the status quo. According to Act 164, the legislature must make an affirmative vote in order for the PSB to issue a final CPG.
"This vote in the Senate today was little more than theater," said Douglas.
As I pointed out yesterday, this is not the last we'll hear about Vermont Yankee's relicensure, but for sure the vote today in the Senate sends a clear message to VY's parent company Entergy: Thanks, but no thanks.
Sen. Matt Choate (D-Caledonia) indicated it was likely that House and Senate committees will continue to take testimony on Vermont Yankee-related issues.
Even Shumlin noted that any future legislature could revisit the issue, but for now he said the focus should be on ways to transition Vermont to an energy future that does not include nuclear power.
"The Senate took a courageous step to close the unreliable plant on schedule and voted instead to stake out a bold new energy future that will create thousands of good-paying jobs in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency," said Shumlin.
By its own admission, Entergy's drop-dead date for a decision on relicensure isn’t until April 2011. That’s an eternity in politics, and Entergy knows this is not a short-term fight. Vermonters' trust will take months to regain.
"The effort to win a 20-year renewal of Vermont Yankee's operating license is far from over. We remain determined to prove our case to the legislature, state officials and the Vermont public. The plant is a vital, safe and reliable source of clean power for Vermont and the rest of New England, and we will continue communicating to the public the substantial economic and environmental benefits of keeping the plant operating beyond 2012," said Entergy spokesman Larry Smith in a statement. "In the interim, we will remain focused on resolving the tritium issue, on operating the plant safely, reliably and securely, and on winning back the confidence and trust of the citizens of Vermont."
As part of that effort to rebuild the trust of regulators, and the legislature, Entergy officials released the results of their internal probe into how plant officials came to mislead the Public Service Board, under oath, about the existence of underground pipes. They feigned ignorance when asked if such pipes existed.
It has since been revealed the plant does have underground pipes and some of them may be leaking large amounts of tritium into the groundwater, and likely the Connecticut River.
Entergy Executive Vice President for External Affairs Curt Hebert told reporters that an internal investigation by an outside law firm hired by Entergy found the company did not intentionally mislead officials, but "some communication was incomplete or inaccurate."
As a result of the probe, five Entergy employees have been placed on administrative leave and six others were reprimanded. The five employees placed on leave include the vice president for operations, the director of nuclear safety assurance, the manager of licensing, a technical specialist and a senior project manager.
All the disciplinary actions had financial consequences, Hebert said.
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