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Judge rules in favor of Vermont Yankee

January 19, 2012

A federal judge ruled against the state's efforts to close down the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

The battle over whether the state or the federal government has the authority to grant or deny licenses for nuclear plants landed in court last fall. And Thursday, Judge Garvin Murtha ruled in favor of Yankee's parent company, Entergy, saying the state is pre-empted by federal law from taking any action to close Yankee when its original license expires in March.

The decision has been highly anticipated since the case was argued last fall and it has national implications. The Vermont Yankee saga is still far from over and there could be lawsuits.

It started six years ago when the members of the Vermont Legislature decided to give themselves a say in the plant relicensing.

Here is some background information on the Yankee case:

Vermont Yankee Nuclear started running in 1972, located in Vernon on the Connecticut River. It was operated by a group of utilities including GMP and CVPS. Entergy bought the plant in 2002. The New Orleans-based company owns several other nuclear plants. Yankee provided one-third of the state's power.

For most of its time, plant operations did not come under the intense glare of the public. But that changed after a water cooling tower collapse in 2007.

"It's really not acceptable for anything like this to happen," state nuclear engineer Uldis Vanags said in August 2007. 

The state's nuclear engineer was surprised and said better inspections were needed, but that safety was not a problem. Even so, it added fuel for opponents trying to shut down the plant.

"It's irresponsible and does put Vermonters at risk," James Moore of VPIRG said in 2007.

Vermont Yankee repaired the damage and promised better inspections.

2010 started off with the news that the plant was leaking radioactive tritium. Health officials say it did not pose a health risk-- opponents disagreed. The source of the leak was underground pipes. That sparked a new problem for the plant-- officials had said there were no underground pipes carrying radioactive fluid.

Reporter Kristin Carlson: Did the company lie?

Jay Thayer/Entergy: That's a pretty strong statement Kristin. We've been looking into this the past few days and definitely found we made some misstatements.

Misstatements that led to a leadership shake up at the plant. The company tried to fix its PR black eye hiring new lobbyists.

For Vermont lawmakers it was too little too late. In February 2010, opponents swarmed the Statehouse, witnessing history as Vermont became the first Legislature to shut down a nuclear power plant; stopping the review process before it got to state regulators.

"To vote no today is a no brainer," said Sen. Susan Bartlett, D-Lamoille County.

Even one time supporters had enough.

"We have a business partner in Entergy that if its board of directors and management were thoroughly infiltrated by anti-nuclear activists, I do not believe they could have done a better job destroying their own case," said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin County.

Vermont Yankee continued to pursue a federal relicense anyway. And in March of last year, after a 5-year review, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave its OK, saying the plant can run for another 20 years. That set the stage for Entergy to sue the state in April, saying it should have no say in nuclear licensing and that it's a federal issue.

Thursday, the judge agreed with Entergy.

We called Vermont Yankee in Vernon to get reaction, officials told us to call Louisiana where Entergy is based. A spokesman there said, "We're pleased with the decision, which Judge Murtha issued after a thorough review of the facts and the law. The ruling is good news for our 600 employees, the environment and New England residents and industries that depend on clean, affordable, reliable power provided by Vermont Yankee."

Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, led the fight to close Yankee. He said, "I am very disappointed in today's ruling from the federal court. Entergy has not been a trustworthy partner with the state of Vermont. Vermont Yankee needed legislative approval 40 years ago. The plant received approval to operate until March, 2012. I continue to believe that it is in Vermont's best interest to retire the plant. I will await the Attorney General's review of the decision to comment further on whether the state will appeal."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, had this reaction to the ruling: "The court today has made a decision that is, in my view, wrong on the merits and ripe for appeal. I believe the law is very clear, and that states have the right to reject nuclear power for economic and other non-safety reasons."

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, applauded the judge's decision, saying he's glad to see that the court will allow due process to take place.

And Bill Sorrell, D-Vt. Attorney General, told us that while this is clearly more of a loss than a win for the state, he says the door is left open for the Public Service Board to weigh in. He says he and his staff will be taking their time reviewing the decision. They have 30 days to file an appeal.

Watch the video for analysis of the ruling from Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna.

Click here to read the ruling.

Reaction to the ruling from Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Reaction to the ruling from Entergy.

Reaction to the ruling from Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Reaction to the ruling from Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Reaction to the ruling from Rep. Peter Welch.

Reaction to the ruling from Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Reaction to the ruling from the Conservation Law Foundation.

Related Story:

Lawmakers, VPIRG react to Vermont Yankee Ruling

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