Leak Soured Public's Confidence In Vt. Nuclear Plant

Vermont legislators voted to close the state's only nuclear power plant last week. It's one of the nation's oldest commercial reactors, and it is leaking radioactive tritium. The plant's owner wanted permission to extend Vermont Yankee's operating license, but the leak and other issues have damaged the public's confidence in the plant and the owners.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, not everyone believes nuclear is a panacea. For starters, the infrastructure is expensive, and of course, it produces radioactive waste, and many people aren't convinced that it's really safe, which is why Vermont's legislature recently voted to shut down an aging reactor.

Here's Vermont Public Radio's John Dillon.

JOHN DILLON: For decades, the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant had been viewed as a stable energy source and a valued employer that provides 650 well-paying jobs in southern Vermont, but the plant lost significant political support in early January, after radioactive water was found leaking near the Connecticut River. The leak was coming from underground pipes. The problem was, plant officials had testified under oath those pipes didn't exist.

So during legislative debate, the company's credibility became the main issue. While Republican State Senator Randy Brock supports nuclear power, he says Entergy, the Louisiana company that owns the 38-year-old plant, was its own worst enemy.

State Senator RANDY BROCK (Republican, Vermont): If its board of directors and its management were thoroughly infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not believe they could have done a better job destroying their own case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

State Sen. BROCK: The dissembling, the prevarication, the lack of candor have been striking.

DILLON: Just minutes before the vote, Entergy vice president Curtis Hebert tried to patch things up. He cited an internal investigation, showing that the company did not deliberately mislead anyone.

Mr. CURTIS HEBERT (Vice President, Entergy): While there was no intentional wrongdoing, it is not consistent with our expectations at Vermont Yankee or in the nuclear industry, nor is it consistent with our values at Entergy.

DILLON: Entergy had also offered to sell utilities a small amount of power at a discounted price for three years if the legislature extended the plant's license, but the company's last-minute maneuvers did little to sway legislative leaders. Senate President Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said there are only two explanations for Entergy's misstatements on the existence of underground pipes.

State Senator PETER SHUMLIN (Democrat, Vermont): What's worse, a company that won't tell you the truth or a company's that's operating your aging nuclear power plant on the banks of the Connecticut River and doesn't know that they have pipes with radioactive water running through them that are leaking, and they don't know because they didn't know the pipes existed. Neither is very comforting.

(Soundbite of political protest)

DILLON: Following the vote, opponents celebrated outside the state house.

Unidentified Man: And on the vernal equinox, March 21st, 2012, Vermont Yankee will close.

(Soundbite of applause)

DILLON: But it may not be over yet for Vermont Yankee. The Senate vote was on a bill to allow the state utility commission to approve the license extension. Because the Senate voted no, the bill is dead for now, and Yankee cannot get approval to operate after 2012, but the legislature could still revisit the issue next year. Entergy officials say they will try again for an extension.

Entergy still faces legal hurdles, though. Vermont's attorney general has launched a criminal investigation, and in a rare move, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it will put officials under oath to find out what exactly they told Vermont regulators about leaking underground pipes.

For NPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier, Vermont.

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