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Hebert introduces bill to remove Legislature’s power to vote on VY’s Certificate of Public Good

VERNON—Freshman Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, stands by his position that the more qualified Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Vermont Public Service Board, not the Vermont Legislature, should determine whether the nuclear power station should be allowed to run for another 20 years.

On Feb. 22, Hebert, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, submitted a bill (H.331) that would strip the Legislature of its authority to decide the fate of Vermont Yankee.

Under current Vermont statute, an affirmative vote from both houses of the Legislature is needed before the Public Service Board can issue a Certificate of Public Good to Vermont Yankee to operate past the end of its current license in March 2012.

While federal law gives the NRC exclusive authority over issues of safety, the state, through the Public Service Board, issues the Certificate of Public Good based on a range of other non-safety-related criteria.

But with the requirement for legislative approval, added in 2006, “right now, VY is a purely political issue, and it shouldn’t be,” said Hebert.

In February 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 against permitting the Public Service Board to issue the 39-year-old power plant its Certificate of Public Good.

A month earlier, plant workers discovered tritiated water had leaked from the plant. Workers finally traced the leak to underground pipes that numerous senior officials from Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s owner, claimed under oath they knew nothing about.

This incident destroyed the faith that some legislators had in the plant, and prompted the vote that,  unless the Senate reverses its decision this session, thwarted Entergy’s request for a 20-year operating license extension.

But Hebert said it’s “improper” for the Legislature to have the power to decide Vermont Yankee’s fate. Instead, the authority should go to scientists, at places like the Vermont Public Service Board or the NRC, who know what they’re doing, he said.

When Hebert looks around the House, he said he doesn’t see a lot of nuclear scientists, but he does see a lot of pro- or anti-nukers.

“Too much is at stake,” said Hebert, who described his election to his House seat as a referendum on the plant.

According to Hebert, Windham County and the rest of the state will lose $100 million from their economies once Vermont Yankee goes, as well as 600 direct jobs.

“This should not be decided by politicians, myself included,” said Hebert. “Closing VY down is not as simple as one would assume.”

Hebert described a few scenarios to illustrate his point.

What happens if the Legislature decides to sit on its hands, not allowing the Public Service Board to do anything? Hebert asked. Does the state post guards outside the nuclear plant’s gates to keep workers out after March 2012?

What if Entergy decides to take the state to court and wins? said Hebert, adding that the company, in antagonistic relationship with the state, would have no reason to give Vermont a good power purchase agreement should the plant remain active.

The Public Service Board exists for a reason “and you should rely on them to do their job,” he said.

In addition, Hebert’s bill, if passed, would no longer require legislative approval to store spent fuel at the site if Vermont Yankee continued to operate past 2012.

What are the chances that Hebert’s bill will succeed?

“I just don’t think there’s an appetite to revisit the issue,” said Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, who also serves on the Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

Most people at the Statehouse feel that the vote has been taken, said Edwards, pointing out that only 36 out of the 150 members of the House signed in support of the bill.

Of the 36, Richard Howrigan, D-Fairfield, is the only Democrat. Seven supporters are Republican/Democrats, elected by both respective parties in their respective primaries.

After spending six years on the issue and investing a lot of energy in learning about it, most people have moved on, Edwards said.

But Edwards said that she understands why Vermont Yankee supporters haven’t given up yet.

“You don’t give up until you have to give up,” she said.

Rep. Tony Klein, D-Montpelier, chairman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said that he respects Hebert and the work he does on behalf of his constituents.

And in the past, he said, the House took up the issue of whether to let the Public Service Board issue a Certificate of Public Good for Vermont Yankee for valid reasons, though the Senate’s vote last year stopped the House from further activity on the issue.

But now the issue is done, Klein said, because for the House to consider revisiting the issue, the Senate would have to reverse its February 2010 vote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #91 (Wednesday, March 9, 2011).

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