Legislators are probably wondering how cynical they ought to be about Vermont Yankee.
Many conscientious legislators have been withholding judgment on the future of the nuclear power plant, a major employer in southern Vermont and a major power source for Vermont and New England. They know that refusing to extend the plant's license for another 20 years would require adjustments in the state's power mix and could lead to higher prices.
So as problems have mounted at the plant, they have been trying to hold cynicism at bay, hoping to give the plant's owners a chance to make their case. Instead, the case for cynicism about the plant and its owners grows stronger as each week passes.
The latest news is an unproven allegation by an anonymous whistleblower about water containing radioactive tritium leaking from the plant. Entergy Vermont, owner of the plant, is trying to find the source of an underground leak that was revealed in recent weeks. The whistleblower has told a member of the Vermont Public Oversight Panel that these leaks have occurred in previous years and that Entergy tried to patch them without shutting down the plant and without telling anyone.
Two environmental groups have requested a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney general into false statements made under oath by Entergy to Vermont officials. The whistleblower's allegations point to the possibility of a pervasive pattern of secrecy and deception that goes well beyond recent misstatements.
The Vermont Senate is expected to vote next week against an extension of Entergy's license to operate Vermont Yankee beyond 2012. Gov. James Douglas and Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien say the vote is premature. They want to give Entergy more time to answer the multiplying allegations against them.
So far, time has not worked to Entergy's advantage. Day by day, more problems emerge, leading policymakers to wonder whether the quest for profits has turned Entergy into a criminal enterprise.
The tip-off came with Entergy's plan to spin dross into gold — spin off an aging, problem-plagued nuclear power plant to a separate corporate entity, called Enexus, making a bundle of money for Entergy while leaving Enexus to clean up the environmental mess that at the time was hidden from view.
The whistleblower's allegations fit the pattern. Entergy executives misled Vermont legislators and regulators last year by denying that underground pipes existed. Why would they do that? If they had been stealthily trying to patch up the pipes two years ago, their more recent deceptions suggest a long-term intention of keeping the problem secret until they could hand off the plant to Enexus. Revelations about the true condition of the plant might have ruined their plans for a big payday.
Is this an overly cynical view of the motives of Entergy? Events continue to justify cynicism. At this point, the naivete demonstrated by the Douglas administration may be more damaging to Vermont's interest than the cynicism bred by Entergy's behavior. Douglas puts on a show of outrage at each incident of incompetence or dishonesty, but then bends over backwards to give Entergy a chance to show it is really a good corporate citizen. So far, it has failed to do so.
Vermont Yankee has always been a touchstone of political controversy. For the anti-nuclear faction, it is high technology running amok, creating waste that will plague the generations, and promoting unscrupulous behavior in the quest for profit. For believers in nuclear power, it is a safe and efficient way to produce great quantities of affordable power, while providing well-paying jobs and curbing greenhouse gases.
Anti-nuclear advocates feel vindicated by the present controversy, but Yankee's future does not hinge on the larger question about nuclear power. It hinges on the behavior of Entergy and the performance of the plant. Entergy's behavior so far may have ensured that, even if the courts were to set aside the Legislature's authority over Yankee's license, the Public Service Board will reject Entergy's bid for an extended license.
For now the Senate is poised to reject the license extension, which means that if Entergy wants to operate the plant beyond 2012, it must somehow account for the plant's failures and for its own dishonesty and make its case anew.
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