MONTPELIER, Vt.—Entergy Corp. heavily lobbied multiple federal agencies last spring as it unsuccessfully pleaded with them to join its lawsuit against the state of Vermont's efforts to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, internal Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents show.
The emails, letters and other documents, obtained from the NRC by The Associated Press after a Freedom of Information Act request, also show NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko being coached by the agency's lawyers to scale back remarks he had been making saying the agency was unlikely to intervene in the Entergy lawsuit.
And they indicate the NRC's five commissioners at least planned to meet with Entergy representatives in early June, something they told a U.S. Senate committee later that month they decided not to do, citing the agency's involvement in the lawsuit.
In the end, Entergy's lobbying met with limited success. A three-day trial in Vermont Yankee's lawsuit against the state, held last month in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro, saw no formal intervention by the NRC or the U.S. Justice Department. Judge J. Garvan Murtha has yet to issue a decision in the suit.
But the NRC documents -- most of them whited out under claims by the agency that they are exempt from public disclosure -- provide glimpses into Entergy's extensive lobbying efforts in Washington.
A central issue in the Vermont Yankee case is whether the state is pre-empted by federal law from requiring that the Vernon reactor shut down when its initial 40-year license expires next March. The NRC announced in March of this year that it would grant Vermont Yankee a 20-year license extension.
Vermont is the only state in the country with a law requiring state lawmakers' approval for a nuclear plant's license extension. The Senate voted 26-4 in 2010 against continued operation; the House hasn't acted.
A month after it got the NRC license extension, Entergy filed suit in U.S. District Court against the state, saying the state's reasons for wanting its lone reactor had mainly to do with safety, which falls under the NRC's sole jurisdiction.
State officials have maintained they have other concerns, including Vermont Yankee's reliability and its effects on the Vermont energy economy, saying the plant's presence has slowed the development of alternative, renewable power.
Jaczko told reporters in March it did not appear to him the state was overstepping its authority. "From what I've seen so far from the actions of the state, the actions that they are taking do not involve any of our authorities or responsibilities." On the question of the plant's reliability, he added, "I would not anticipate that we would be involved in that determination."
Jaczko was making similar statements to members of Vermont's congressional delegation. That, according to an April 27 internal NRC email, prompted some corrective coaching from the NRC's Office of General Counsel. It said Jaczko "mistook" the agency's policy as "tantamount to a `no participation' stance in the Vermont Yankee litigation."
It added, "Now that the Chairman understands that the situation is more nuanced than he previously had understood, he says he will be more careful."
The records show that around that time in late April, Entergy executives were in touch repeatedly with top NRC officials, including NRC Solicitor John Cordes, the lawyer in charge of any court litigation in which the agency might be involved.
On April 27, Entergy's top lawyer, Vice President and General Counsel Robert Sloan, wrote to Cordes to thank him for a meeting a week earlier.
Sloan said he wanted to spell out the reasons for federal intervention, chief among them that "we believe the Commission has a strong interest in clarifying the importance of the federal government's exclusive control over the licensing and operation of already constructed and operating nuclear plants that have been licensed by the Commission."
The lobbying continued through May, according to a May 27 email from Cordes to another staff member in the Office of General Counsel.
"Pressure is building," Cordes wrote, "given Entergy's scheduled meetings with all five Commissioners next week and given's Entergy's lobbying at DOJ (Department of Justice) and DOE (Department of Energy." Another May 27 email, from the NRC's general counsel, Stephen Burns, to Cordes said Jaczko was to meet with Entergy representatives June 2.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in an interview that his office learned the lobbying was successful with the NRC; less so with the Department of Justice. Sanders said NRC commissioners voted 3-2 on June 15 to ask for the Justice Department's OK to intervene in the Vermont Yankee case.
NRC officials said the commission's votes on legal strategy are secret and refused to comment on Sanders' statements. The Justice Department also declined comment.
It's impossible to tell how much Entergy spent on its efforts to try to get the NRC and Justice Department to intervene in the Vermont Yankee case. But lobbyist disclosure filings included in a U.S. Senate database shed some light on the extent to which the company tried to influence the federal government on a variety of issues. Entergy Services reported spending $670,000 on lobbying in the second quarter of this year, when the question of government intervention in the Vermont Yankee case was most in play, and that Entergy Nuclear Northeast, another company unit, spent $90,000.
Disclosure reports show the company lobbying not just on nuclear power but a range of other issues, including pensions, the handing of coal ash, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The reports do not include money the company spent on lawyers involved in the Vermont Yankee matter; the documents indicate that involvement was extensive.
As for the meetings NRC officials said were planned between individual commissioners and Entergy representatives, the Justice Department advised against them and they did not happen, the commissioners said at a hearing of the Senate committee.
NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner said it was decided that with the NRC potentially involved in the Vermont Yankee litigation, it was decided "it's not too bright an idea" to have the meetings.
Sanders said in an interview the stakes were large. "What we have here in Entergy is an enormously large and powerful energy company (that) has wanted the NRC to urge the Department of Justice to intervene in this case, which would have been very, very significant."
Sanders said the Vermont case is being watched closely around the country because it could mark the first time a U.S. nuclear plant had been closed against its owners' wishes.