Vt. Senate votes to close Yankee power plant

Lawmakers voiced frustration over leaks of tritium at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. Lawmakers voiced frustration over leaks of tritium at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times / February 25, 2010

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MONTPELIER - In a rare case of state involvement in nuclear regulation, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 yesterday to block a license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, citing radioactive leaks, misstatements in testimony by plant officials, and other problems.

Unless the chamber reverses itself, it would be the first time in more than 20 years that the public or its representatives decided to close a reactor.

The vote was taken barely more than a week after President Obama declared a new era of rebirth for the nation’s nuclear industry, announcing federal loan guarantees of $8.3 billion to ensure the construction of a twin-reactor plant near Augusta, Ga.

Vermont Yankee’s recent troubles are viewed by some as a challenge to arguments that reactors are clean, well run, and worth the enormous investment involved in building and operating them.

State lawmakers voiced frustration over recent leaks of radioactive tritium at the 38-year-old plant as well as the collapse of a cooling tower in 2007 and inaccurate testimony by the plant’s owner, Entergy Corp., a Louisiana-based nuclear operator. Plant officials had testified that there were no underground pipes at Vermont Yankee that could leak tritium, although there were.

Scientists tracking the leaks have found no evidence that the substance has entered the drinking supply or harmed anyone.

Lawmakers at yesterday’s session also voiced doubts that Entergy would have enough money to decommission the plant in view of the costly tritium leak and other troubles.

In the decisive vote, senators defeated a resolution that would have authorized the state to issue a certificate of “public good,’’ which would be necessary to keep Vermont Yankee operating.

Under Vermont law, any extension of the plant’s license beyond 2012 would have to be approved by both houses. So unless the Senate reverses itself and the House also approves an extension, the plant would have to close by March of that year.

The controversy in Vermont is viewed with deep apprehension and some anger by the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, which normally calls the shots on plant safety issues, has been poised to give the plant another 20 years. Commission officials have declined to comment on Vermont’s action.

The last time a reactor in the United States was closed by a vote of the public or its representatives was in June 1989, when voters of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District decided to shut the Rancho Seco reactor. The issues in that case were mostly economic.

Popular referendums to close reactors have been brought in several states but always failed. But owners closed several old reactors - including Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Connecticut Yankee in Haddam Neck, and Yankee Rowe, in Rowe, Mass. - because they had expensive safety problems and were not very profitable.

The Yankee plants were of different designs but were owned by overlapping partnerships of New England utilities.

Commissioned in August 1966, and given its operating license in March 1972, Vermont Yankee is one of the older plants in the American inventory of 104 power reactors. The oldest still running is Oyster Creek, near Toms River, N.J., which is of a very similar design and opened in December 1969.

It recently won a 20-year extension of its initial 40-year license, although, to the indignation of its opponents, plant owners announced a few days after the renewal that it also was leaking tritium.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is supposed to have sole authority to regulate safety issues - under a 56-year-old federal law intended to encourage the growth of civilian use of nuclear power. Entergy, however, gave the state of Vermont a opening in 2004 when it bought the plant from a group of local utilities.

It agreed in a memorandum of understanding that the state’s “certificate of public good,’’ a state-issued permit that all power plants must have, would expire with the original 40-year license and that another certificate would be required.