BRISTOL — Addison County lawmakers on Monday joined a growing chorus of critics of Vermont Yankee and served notice that the Vernon-based nuclear power plant’s chances of receiving a license renewal in 2012 have taken a substantial hit.
That latest criticism has come in wake of news that two groundwater monitoring wells at Vermont Yankee have become contaminated with the radioactive isotope tritium. Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Wendy Davis announced on Tuesday that it was reasonable to assume that tritium had migrated to the nearby Connecticut River. All of this has led to a management shake-up at the Entergy Nuclear-owned facility, in the aftermath of allegations that plant officials misled state regulators and lawmakers by saying last year that the plant did not have the sort of underground pipes that could carry radioactive tritium.
Lawmakers have also criticized Entergy for being slow to assemble a decommissioning fund to eventually pay for the safe closing of Vermont Yankee.
“Vermont Yankee is a problem,” said Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, who serves on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that is reviewing the plant’s status and bid to stay open.
“We need to have the money so that when that plant closes, we aren’t going to be taxed for $500 million,” Nuovo told participants at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the American Legion Hall in Bristol.
Nuovo said there is currently upwards of $400 million in the decommissioning fund, which she said is only a fraction of what ultimately will be needed to close the plant, safely remove the hazardous material and restore the site.
Another issue clouding Vermont Yankee’s future, according to Nuovo: Entergy, assuming the re-licensing process is successful, wants to sell the plant to a new subsidiary called “Enexus.” She said Enexus would also own five other nuclear power plants, in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, said that finances, along with safety, will go a long way to determining Vermont Yankee’s future.
“If the decommissioning fund fails, or if Enexus folds because of how highly leveraged it is, the size of the bill that will be passed over to Vermont citizens is equal to our general fund,” Bray said. “It would be a catastrophic event, potentially. It is really important we make sure they do not walk away from the liability.”
Bray, who recently announced a bid for lieutenant governor, said the Legislature’s scrutiny of Vermont Yankee should not be construed as being anti-business.
“This is just asking someone to live up to a commitment they have,” he said.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, acknowledged that Vermont Yankee does provide good paying jobs and, at this point, very competitive power rates. But she said the true value of those jobs and power rates may currently be over-stated by supporters.
Ayer, the Senate majority whip, said roughly half of Vermont Yankee’s approximately 600 workers live in Vermont; the other half live in New Hampshire. And she said that Entergy has offered Vermont a future energy deal that would satisfy 17 percent of its total energy needs. Ayer said she believes the state could, if need be, look to other energy sources to fill that 17-percent energy void.
“They have offered it at a rate that is above market rate,” Ayer said. “We can go out shopping on the grid and do way better than 6.1 cents (per kilowatt hour).
“I am not worried about the consequences, in terms of my electricity bill — or state unemployment — if we have to close the plant,” she added.
Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, stressed that lawmakers do not have the authority to shut down Vermont Yankee this year.
“Our authority is limited to whether or not the plant can continue to operate after its current licenses expire in 2012,” Maier said. “There is some wisdom, I think, in taking our time and … making sure we get things done right before we take that vote.”
Other discussion at Monday’s breakfast focused on:
• State finances. Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, noted the House Ways and Ways Committee (of which he is a member) passed a proposed fee bill for the state. Sharpe said the governor asked for, and the committee granted, an increase of $2.8 million in state fees relating to various licenses and services.
“I am not a big fan of raising money to support government operations using fees; it tends to hurt regular people more than broad-based, fair taxation policy,” Sharpe said.
Gov. James Douglas has said he does not favor raising taxes as a way to push the state through a $151 million budget deficit looming for fiscal year 2011. Lawmakers are currently looking at spending cuts to bridge the budget gap, and the choices have been very tough. Legislators are reviewing Douglas’s proposed budget, which, among other things, asks low-income Vermonters to absorb those cuts and higher premiums for state health care services.
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, said cutting health care programs could result in some Vermonters losing the supports they need to care for themselves at home. He said the state historically has found it more cost-effective for the elderly and sick to care for themselves at home, rather than resort to more costly nursing home care.
“We are, with this budget, reversing our policy,” said Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee. “We are now moving toward promoting a different kind of care — more expensive care. People don’t want to go to a nursing home. It’s a bad policy direction that won’t serve Vermonters well.”
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, said the state must look at ways to provide its services more cost effectively, given what he described as a “perfect storm” of bad economic news that has befallen the state, and the global economy as a whole.
“We are in a real dilemma, and I think everyone here knows that,” Clark said. “We cannot cut our way into prosperity any more than we can spend our way into prosperity. But we can make some legitimate investments and make sure the programs we are providing are as effective as possible.”
• Transportation spending. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, reported that there appears to be enough state and federal funding in place to ramp up repairs to area roads and bridges. She noted the state is gathering revenues from its new Transportation Infrastructure Bonding fund, containing revenues from a recent bump in the gasoline and diesel taxes.
Lanpher said there is so much work to be done that there has been an administrative bottleneck of projects that continue to wait for completion.
There are a lot of projects that could be done, according to Lanpher. She said there are currently 433 “structurally deficient” bridges in Vermont. In 19 of those cases, motorists have been forced to make detours of up to 60 miles. (See related Legislative Report on Page 12.)
• Agriculture. Bray, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said the Vermont Agency of Agriculture has gradually cut its staffing to “1983 levels.”
“They are having trouble meeting all of the requirements of what they are supposed to do,” Bray said of the agency’s reduced staff.
He added a “Farm-to-School” program, designed to promote good nutrition and locally grown food in schools, has been cut in Douglas’s proposed spending plan.
“That’s a case where I think we are being penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Bray said.
He noted that currently 97 percent of the food Vermonters eat is brought in from out of state. He explained that efforts to supply more locally grown food to Vermont schools, businesses and institutions has been hampered by a short growing season and a lack of processing facilities.
Bray said he believes the state can overcome those problems and quite easily boost its local food consumption from 3 percent to 13 percent. Such an increase, he said, would generate another $500 million in economic activity in the state — roughly equal to Vermont’s gross milk receipts in a good year.