MONTPELIER, Vt. – Vermont's piece of the nuclear age, launched four decades ago, seems to be coming to a close, even as advocates push for a renaissance of nuclear power in the United States.
The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant's initial 40-year license expires March 21, 2012, less than 15 months from now. And despite a safety and performance record no worse than many of the other 61 reactors that have won 20-year license extensions from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Vernon power plant's future looks short.
That's largely because it's located in the only state in the country with a law saying both houses of its legislature have to give their approval before Vermont regulators can issue a state license for the plant to continue operating.
The Vermont Senate voted 26-4 last February against letting the Public Service Board issue the new state license. That vote came a month after it was revealed that Vermont Yankee was leaking tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, into soil and groundwater surrounding the reactor on the banks of the Connecticut River. It also followed revelations that senior plant personnel had misled state officials about whether Vermont Yankee had the sort of underground pipes that carried radioactive tritium.
Entergy Corp., the New Orleans-based utility giant that owns Vermont Yankee, thinks it can turn its fortunes around.
"We continue to undertake the work to receive the approvals necessary to operate the plant past March" of 2012, Mike Burns, spokesman for the plant's owner, New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., said in an e-mail.
Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat and chairman of the state House Natural Resources and Energy committee, has been a key player in issues related to Vermont's lone reactor in recent years. He does not see Vermont Yankee operating beyond its shutdown date.
"I don't think there's any chance in hell. ... If they've got a game plan, it's a strange one to me."
Thirty-seven of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors have had leaks like the ones reported at Vermont Yankee last winter. None of the tritium or other radioactive substances reported to have leaked later have turned up in public water supplies, and plant and state officials have said throughout there's no threat to public health and safety.
Vermont long has been known nationally as a hotspot for anti-nuclear sentiment, and the combination of the leaks and misstatements to state officials quickly made the political atmosphere toxic for Entergy.
Newly elected Gov. Peter Shumlin, then the president pro tem of the state Senate, orchestrated February's vote to block Yankee's re-licensing. In his gubernatorial campaign, he referred throughout his campaign to "Entergy Louisiana," emphasizing Vermont Yankee's out-of-state ownership.
Shumlin, who grew up less than 25 miles from Vermont Yankee in Putney, said he didn't give it much thought when the plant split its first atoms three days before his 16th birthday. Now he firmly believes the plant should close when its 40 years are up.
He called Entergy "a company we can't trust. The plant is old and leaking. There's no place to store the (radioactive) waste. The world has changed and we need to change with it. It's time for it to sleep."
The tritium troubles weren't the first black eye the plant had given itself in recent years.
In 2007, a cooling tower at the reactor in Vernon, in Vermont's southeast corner, collapsed, producing a spectacular photo of thousands of gallons of water spewing from a 6-foot-wide pipe onto a pile of rubble on the ground below.
Robert Stannard said seeing the photo prompted him to leave his job as head of a Bennington development group and go to work lobbying for an anti-nuclear group, Vermont Citizens' Action Network.
"If this company allowed degradation in maintenance to a degree that the plant was falling down, I felt I had to do something about it," Stannard said.
Others hold out hope Vermont Yankee will continue to operate.
William Driscoll, vice president of the manufacturers' group Associated Industries of Vermont, said he hoped the Legislature would repeal the law giving itself the power to decide the nuclear plant's fate.
"We would hope they would put this decision in the hands of the Public Service Board, which is where we believe it would be the best handled."
Driscoll pointed to a report issued last August by ISO-New England, which dispatches electric power around the six-state region, saying that losing Vermont Yankee could cause parts of the electric grid to become less reliable.
Nuclear critics scoff at that, noting the lights don't go out when the plant has an unscheduled outage because of mechanical or other problems.
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