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Douglas: Leave Vermont Yankee Fate to 'Experts,' Not Lawmakers 

Published January 21, 2010 at 3:29 p.m.

When it comes to Gov. Jim Douglas and Vermont Yankee, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Despite the recent discovery of high levels of radioactive isotope in the groundwater near Vermont Yankee, Douglas continued to express his belief that lawmakers should allow state regulators to decide whether Vermont Yankee should continue operating beyond 2012.

As of yesterday, one monitoring well was found to have more than 23,000 picocuries per liter of tritium, which is higher than the federal environmental drinking water standard of 20,000 picocuries.

State health officials told lawmakers yesterday that water tested in a separate, concrete trench had tritium levels ranging from 720,000 picocuries to 2 million picocuries per liter.

Both lawmakers and Douglas have asked health investigators to ramp up their independent monitoring efforts and to post those results online — daily.

Douglas told reporters at his weekly press conference this morning that lawmakers should vote soon — though perhaps not today, as he recognized VY's support has waned considerably in the past week — to allow the Vermont Public Service Board to move forward and decide VY's fate.

"These decisions are best made outside the political realm," said Douglas. "How my administration presents that case to the Public Service Board will be determined by the outcome of the investigation that is under way now."

That said, Douglas is concerned about the recent tritium leak and its impact — on Vermont Yankee.

"The safety of the operation of that plant is my highest priority; it's what we need to feel good about in order to have it continue to operate and be part of our energy future. I take it very seriously and hope we get to the bottom of it very quickly," said Douglas.

Douglas said lawmakers should leave the VY investigation to the "experts" and instead focus on the state's economic problems.

"We need to have legislators focused on what is necessary to ensure the fiscal and economic health of Vermont," said Douglas. "They need to balance the budget; they need to invest in job creation; they need to address the economic problems on the table during this session."

When asked if Entergy can be trusted to give his administration a straight story, given the company's pattern of lying to lawmakers, the public and regulators, Douglas said his team's motto is no longer "Trust but verify." It's now "Verify."

"We have to be sure the information presented is accurate, but, to be perfectly honest, if someone is truly interested in deceiving the public official or public generally, it can happen," said Douglas.

Douglas said some are comparing Entergy's misstatements to federal regulators with the problems facing Burlington Telecom and some of its officials who didn't fully disclose that the city loaned the utility upward of $17 million in taxpayer money over two years.

Um, really? I can see the parallel in terms of misleading the public and public officials, but last I checked Burlington Telecom didn't leak radioactive isotopes into Lake Champlain or Burlington's groundwater.

If this pattern of obfuscation and deflection sounds familiar, just check out this week's "Fair Game" for an analysis of Entergy's long-standing "truthiness" standard when it comes to providing information to regulators. As you'll see, regulators often play a crucial role in reassuring the public when Entergy screws up and something leaks from, or falls off, the aging reactor.

Douglas said Attorney General Bill Sorrell was "looking into" Entergy's claims before state regulators. Sorrell would not say if such a probe was already underway.

"I’ve been declining and intend for the foreseeable future to continue to decline comment on the issue, other than to say that my office has a history of taking seriously matters relating to the veracity and reliability of statements and information provided to state regulator," Sorrell told Seven Days.

Yesterday, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group asked Sorrell to determine whether VY's current advertising campaign violates the state's consumer fraud laws.

Lawmakers recently reconstituted a special legislative panel to review what Entergy officials told legislators and consultants during a 2008 review of the plant's operations.

The panel was created in 2008 to determine the plant's reliability to operate for another 20 years. During that review, Entergy officials told consultants there were no underground pipes that carried radionuclides.

The governor said today that he is looking to replace his sole appointee to the panel — former state nuclear engineer William Sherman, who has decided not to continue serving on the group. The panel meets for the first time on Monday.

"I obviously will have to find a successor to Bill," said Douglas.

Douglas also said he expects Entergy to pick up the additional state monitoring of groundwater and surface water near Vermont Yankee.

When it was first licensed in 1972, Vermont Yankee was given a 40-year license. That expires in 2012, and the plant's owners, Entergy, have asked state and federal regulators to extend VY's life another 20 years. Entergy also wants to shift ownership of the plant to a spin-off limited liability company called Enexus.

The Vermont Public Service Board will host a technical hearing next Wednesday on issues related to the relicensure of Vermont Yankee. Both the state Department of Public Service and the New England Coalition have asked for the case to be reopened and for some of Entergy's assertions to be reexamined, given the news that Entergy officials misled regulators under oath.

Despite the recent revelations and concerns, Douglas remains a supporter of Vermont Yankee's ability to deliver low-cost power for the state.

"I've said all along this is an important part of our energy mix," said Douglas. "It's been a cost-effective, emission-free source of electricity that has served Vermont well because our retail electric rates haven't gone up like they have in other places."

Asked if the tritium leak also raises concerns about whether Entergy, or the new firm Enexus, will have enough money to decommission the plant, Douglas again deferred to the "experts."

"The plant needs to be decommissioned at some point, and the resources need to be there to accomplish it," said Douglas. But he believes regulators should decide how much and how quickly the decommissioning fund should be shored up.

As of December 31, the value of the Vermont Yankee decommissioning fund was $428,369,568, a slight drop from November 30, when it was $428,451,492. In September 2007, the fund was roughly $440 million.

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Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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