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VY panel: Okay to disagree

Despite irreconcilable differences on the nuclear issue, a new advisory panel grapples with how to offer clear advice on contentious issues

BRATTLEBORO—Like its name, the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel is a bit unwieldy: Its 19 members include government officials, private citizens, and representatives of the nuclear industry.

“I think it’s unlikely that there’s any topic that we would find that we have consensus on, given the range of parties on the panel,” said Martin Langeveld, a citizen member of the panel.

At the same time, though, the word “advisory” is in the panel’s name and its charter.

So, at its Sept. 2 meeting in the conference room of the Windham Regional Commission, several members got together to wrestle with an important question: How can the panel find a way to offer advice on controversial issues involving the cleanup of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant?

They came up with a process — a majority/minority opinion structure, reflecting an appeals court model — and they found two topics on which the advisory panel will be asked to take a stand: construction of a new spent fuel storage site at the Vernon plant, and the need for the federal government to develop clear rules on decommissioning nuclear plants.

The discussion on those topics will begin in earnest at the advisory panel’s next regular meeting, scheduled for Sept. 24 in Brattleboro.

“What we say is important, because we’re a panel that’s put together to do this,” Chairwoman Kate O’Connor said.

The advisory panel was established by the Legislature last year in advance of Vermont Yankee’s Dec. 29 shutdown, and it has been meeting regularly for almost a year. It replaced the seven-member Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, which had been active since Entergy acquired Vermont Yankee in 2002.

A description of the new organization’s makeup and purpose says “the panel shall serve in an advisory capacity.”

It also details this duty: “To advise the governor, the general assembly and the agencies of the state and the public on issues related to the decommissioning of [Vermont Yankee], with a written report being provided annually to the governor and to the energy committees of the General Assembly.”

But, aside from mentions of receiving reports and providing a forum for public comment, there is no clear roadmap provided for the panel to “advise.”

And there is no shortage of hot-button Vermont Yankee issues.

Hence the formation of an Advisory Opinion Subcommittee, whose members have met to talk through the problem.

‘Part of our charter’

Though the issue might sound arcane, those who serve on the VNDCAP panel say it is important that they’re not shirking their duty at a critical time.

“I think it’s very appropriate — it’s really part of our charter — that we do this,” Langeveld said.

Those who participated in the 90-minute meeting — a handful of private citizens serving on the panel, as well as some state officials — decided fairly quickly to follow a court-type process, with Langeveld saying “the idea of a majority/minority opinion structure would be the best way to go about it.” The method makes allowances for voicing the almost-inevitable diverging opinions on Yankee matters.

The process won’t be swift, though: It’s expected that the advisory panel will need at least two meetings to take a firm stance on any Vermont Yankee issue. Given that the body meets at most monthly, and sometimes less often, that means a long path to decisions.

There is a need, at every step, to seek public comment. And there was talk of bringing in experts to inform the panel’s decisions, as has already happened at some VNDCAP sessions.

That led an observer, Lorie Cartwright of the New England Coalition, to ask, “Who decides who the expert is going to be, and how is that decision made? Usually, there’s an expert on both sides of the issue.”

Panel members said they have no intention of glossing over details, though — even if the topic is “the sky is blue,” said David Deen, a citizen representative who also serves as a state legislator.

“I would like to hear from some experts as to why it is and why it might not be blue,” Deen said.

Added advisory panel member Jim Matteau, “you have to make a judgment.”

“I’ve given up on finding people who are neutral or unbiased on nuclear power,” said Matteau, the former executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, an agency that deliberately has tried to stake out neutral ground on the nuclear issue. “They’re not there, or else they’re not paying attention.”

An agenda for advice

Having settled on a process for framing their opinions, members of the subcommittee turned their attention to what topics should be tackled first.

One was an easy call: The state is considering Entergy’s application to construct a second pad for storing spent nuclear fuel, and the subcommittee members agreed to recommend that the full VNDCAP advisory panel should take a stance on that subject first.

“Because of the timing with the Public Service Board, it’s probably the most-pressing issue,” Matteau said.

The second topic up for immediate consideration will be the paucity of clear federal rules for decommissioning nuclear plants. The lack of a decommissioning program has led Entergy to seek exemptions and license amendments in order to go about its business, and some see that process as haphazard and problematically precedent-setting.

It’s important “to have the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] come up with closure rules [...] because every side of this issue is frustrated in terms of their not being prepared,” Deen said. “If [the federal rules] don’t get out there soon, we’re going to be without a rudder throughout this entire process.”

So, at the Sept. 24 meeting, the subcommittee will officially request that the full advisory panel take up those two issues. Left for another time were other contentious matters such as Entergy’s proposed uses of the plant’s decommissioning trust fund; cleanup standards for the plant site; and questions about future uses of the site.

It won’t be easy for such a large group to find common ground on any issue. But when it happens, panel members say they won’t be shy about expressing their opinions.

In addition to advising the state, “we’re certainly not prohibited from advising Entergy or the NRC or anybody,” Matteau said. “They can decide whether they want to listen, but we’re not muzzled.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #322 (Wednesday, September 9, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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