June 6th, 2010

The Douglas Legacy on Yankee Clean-Up

by Philip Baruth

As Jim Douglas prepares to leave office, it’s good to remember one key fact about his gubernatorial legacy: the Governor twice vetoed decommissioning bills that would have done a good deal to make sure that Entergy foots the bill for the eventual clean-up of Yankee Nuclear down in Vernon. Now, to be clear, neither of these two bills in question were strong pieces of legislation, and the second was weaker than the first. But both required Entergy to show the financial wherewithall for clean-up. And both passed the House and the Senate.

vermont yankee

Only Jim Douglas prevented them from acquiring the force of law. And it’s worth asking, now that the Douglas legacy is beginning to come slowly into focus: to what end?

Yes, sure, Douglas attached a statement to each veto saying that it was designed to shield Vermonters from higher electricity rates. But that was always a disingenuous explanation at best: the bills only called for Entergy to put together a series of financial instruments that would demonstrate their ability to manage the clean-up. That is, the energy giant had to show a line of credit, not a pile of cash. No reason why that would cause rates to spike, or at least no good reason why that would cause rates to spike.

But Douglas twice used that standard excuse, as he did in every instance involving any issue related to Yankee, to fig-leaf what were actually very troubling decisions. Douglas now leaves office without a decommissioning bill in place, and that was clearly his long-term goal.

But again, to what end?

The country is rivetted now on the BP spill, and why not: it’s spectacular and horrifying and there’s a live video feed straight from a mile beneath the ocean. Robots are running massive hydraulic equipment, and pelicans are dying in the surf. It’s reality television minus the scripting.

But it’s good to remember that even though it’s not happening at the same breakneck speed, Vermont Yankee is slowly, over time, becoming a profound environmental hazard in its own right. That’s written into the equation with a nuclear plant, that the plant itself will eventually need to be disposed of as highly deadly toxic waste. And of course in the case of Yankee, you have all of the additional collateral damage: the leaking radioactive piping, the tritium and strontium plumes, the fish now testing positive in the Connecticut River.

Imagine that Governor Bobby Jindal decided to veto a bill mandating that BP pay for the clean-up of his state’s beaches and marsh land. And then imagine that Jindal vetoed a second bill the following year, and claimed he was doing so to protect the people of his state from higher prices at the pump.

Unimaginable of course.

But the paired Douglas vetoes on decommissioning are equally upsetting and unimaginable, if you wrap your mind around the time-lapse nature of the disaster unfolding at Vermont Yankee. That plant is a profound danger to Vermont’s people and its environment, and it will without a shadow of a doubt result in a toxic clean-up currently estimated at somewhere around $1.5 billion.

In the absence of a decommissioning bill, Vermonters are most likely on the hook for a good portion of that staggering expense. That is the Douglas legacy on decommissioning. And Brian Dubie should need to answer, as have all the Democratic candidates for Governor many times over, what he plans to do to protect Vermonters from the crippling liability Jim Douglas insisted time and again that they bear.

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