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A new chapter?

Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel meets for first time since 2009

VERNON—Supporters and opponents of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant gathered in the Vernon Elementary School gym on Feb. 22 for the first Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel (VSNAP) meeting since 2009.

VSNAP did not meet in 2010, despite its mandate to act as an advisory panel considering nuclear-related usage in the state.

The seven-member panel consists of a representative from the Agency of Human Services and the Agency of Natural Resources, the commissioner of the Department of Public Service, a state representative, a state senator, and two members of the public.

Commissioner Elizabeth Miller of the Department of Public Service presided over the meeting. Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Miller last December to replace David O’Brien.

The committee heard testimony from Public Advocacy Director Sarah Hoffmann and Public Service Board consultant Bruce Hinkley; Vermont Yankee’s Mark Romeo; Bill Irwin, radiological health chief for the Vermont Department of Health; and consultant and nuclear engineer Arnie Gundersen.

Last Tuesday’s VSNAP meeting went smoothly. In contrast, past meetings have given the group a rough-and-tumble reputation.

Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, said after the meeting that she looks forward to moving on from the old VSNAP days, which she described as “ineffective” and “dysfunctional.”

“Elizabeth Miller has a clear role she takes very seriously…she’s committed to facilitation. She’s wanting information,” said Edwards, who has served on the panel for eight years.

Edwards views VSNAP as the one place the public can discuss issues related to Vermont Yankee in an open and fair fashion, regardless of one’s personal views.

But frustration with the process built to a boiling point in 2009 for panel members under O’Brien. From Edwards’ point of view, former Gov. Jim Douglas’ refusal to conduct any conversation about the closing of Vermont Yankee stuck O’Brien in an impossible position.

She also hopes the public and the press are ready to stop rehashing the 2009 meeting, when Edwards and fellow panel member Sen. Michael MacDonald took the microphone from O’Brien.

Those days are gone, said Edwards. “It’s time to stop talking about it now because it’s over. We need to move on now.”

In noting Miller’s commitment to a good process, Edwards said she worked in the Legislature to change the rules governing VSNAP.

According the draft 2010 annual report, the Legislature strengthened the VSNAP statutes by requiring a minimum of three meetings a year, and mandated thaat the Department of Public Service provide VSNAP members with all relevant information within the panel’s jurisdiction. The panel can now directly access information, documents, or reports relevant to VSNAP.

Edwards said that, previously, all information was filtered through the Department of Public Service. Two years ago, said Edwards, the Office of the Inspector General released a pertinent report that VSNAP members weren’t given access to. Edwards received a copy via an advocacy group.

“That’s not a secure guarantee. I should get that [information] from the official arm,” said Edwards.

Part of moving forward, said Edwards, is preparing the community for March 2012, when the plant’s current operating license expires. The area should brace itself for change and plan for the plant to close, even if Entergy decides to take the state to court over the issue of pre-emption, a scenario that could keep Vermont Yankee operating.

“We all know this is not going to be a piece of cake,” said Edwards, who suggests studying how other communities have adjusted to the loss of large employers. “We as a state are committed to sound economic development. Other businesses over time will be able to step up to the plate.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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