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Selling our state’s soul, selling us out

Entergy and the state have patched up a litigous and expensive relationship. But if we accept this pragmatic path, what we lose is any pretense that the state has any regulatory role to play in the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee

Leslie Sullivan Sachs is project manager of the Safe and Green Campaign.

Brattleboro

In November, Freedom & Unity: The Vermont Movie, films about Vermont made by Vermonters, came to Brattleboro. Vermont’s unique contribution to direct democracy, our Annual Town Meetings, was one of the themes.

The segment on energy, “People’s Power,” included scenes with citizens in Town Meetings debating shutting down Vermont Yankee. In 2009 and 2010, 51 towns in Vermont passed resolutions that advised the Legislature not to grant a license extension to VY, and to hold Entergy responsible to fully fund decommissioning. The success of this statewide effort sent a clear message to the legislature. Soon after, the Senate voted 26-4 against relicensing.

Watching “People’s Power” moved me to tears. Three years of being lied to, bullied, and sued by an $11 billion Louisiana corporation has silenced our legislators and cowed our regulators. Is Vermont’s direct democracy dead?

At the Rally to Defend Democracy in April 2012, Gov. Peter Shumlin tore into Entergy, listing all the promises it has broken to Vermont. Today, pragmatically, he calls Entergy a fair partner.

One industry insider said Entergy has spent $80 million on legal and regulatory challenges in Vermont since buying Vermont Yankee in 2002. It has paid off.

“The nuclear power industry has just been delivered a tremendous victory against the attempt by any state to shut down federally regulated nuclear power plants,” crowed Entergy’s legal celebrity, Kathleen Sullivan, after the federal court decision on preemption which gutted our legislators’ role.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a captive regulator, with rules stacked in favor of the corporations. Recently, the pesky problem of congressional oversight was handled by a new NRC rule limiting access to NRC records.

Before now, any U.S. Senator or Representative from a state hosting a nuclear reactor could request information. Now only three people in Congress — the chair and ranking members of the Congressional oversight committee — can make such a request. That rule change leaves out U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who serves on the committee.

Not content with eviscerating the state and federal roles in running nuclear reactors, Entergy has now set its sights on limiting a host state’s role in decommissioning. Vermont Yankee is the first in a wave of reactors facing these issues. The company is sending a signal to regulators in New York, Michigan, and Massachusetts, respective hosts of its Pilgrim, Fitzpatrick, Palisades, and Indian Point reactors: “We will outspend you, we can force your hand, or we will walk away for half a century via SAFSTOR.”

Entergy has blackmailed Vermont into signing an agreement that disempowers the only regulator left standing, the Public Service Board (PSB). With three months of negotiations, five years of evidence and advocacy are wiped clean, because if the PSB tinkers with the negotiated MOU, Entergy walks away.

Take it or leave it, PSB.

* * *

This week, the PSB heard testimony from dozens of citizens who said that Entergy cannot be trusted.

Many of us believe the state shares this distrust and our goals: getting the spent fuel moved out of the pool now, holding Entergy accountable financially, leaving a clean river, getting a site assessment that honestly identifies the extent of pollutants, and setting firm commitments and a schedule to clean them up promptly with strict oversight and enforcement by the state.

Coerced by the threat of SAFSTOR, the state’s negotiating position was weak. Now the conditions have been set by this deal, not by the PSB. And under the terms of this agreement, the PSB can just suck it up whenever Entergy cries, “Preemption!”

If the PSB denies a CPG or sets conditions beyond those in the deal, Entergy can do the bare minimum the NRC requires.

Entergy can wait until 2016 to report on conditions at the site. It can let 900 tons of high-level radioactive waste sit in the pool for 50 years or more. It can risk the decommissioning trust fund while it plays the stock market. It can work on weakening NRC regulations further until it’s time for SAFSTOR.

Forget about contributing to site restoration. And hey, good luck with returning the site to a green field!

* * *

In the battle between pragmatism and principle, what do we have to lose?

If you believe Entergy’s fresh promises, we avoid 50 or 60 years of waiting (during which time leaks continue to foul our groundwater and river). In one year rather than three, we get Entergy’s quick-and-dirty assessment of the 148 riverside acres polluted by tritium, strontium 90, cesium, and a host of other carcinogens. We avoid immediate job losses and get $10 million to help cushion the blow. We avoid bearing the burden of site restoration alone.

The pragmatic choice might be to take the deal, hope specific deadlines can be set and enforced, then scream and sue when Entergy continues its pattern of violating agreements and showing disdain for the state’s process.

If we accept this pragmatic path, what we lose is any pretense that the state has any regulatory role to play. Back-room deals and rubber stamps are now the Vermont way.

What we lose is our faith in Vermont as a practicing democracy. Town Meeting votes, the Senate vote, actions by the state’s regulators and advocacy groups, and citizen activists are but democracy’s window dressing when given an ultimatum by corporate America and captive federal regulators.

We cede the battle to Entergy, Monsanto, TransCanada and their ilk and, with either a cynical shrug or deep grief, admit the “Freedom and Unity” of Vermont is not enough.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #238 (Wednesday, January 22, 2014). This story appeared on page C1.

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