Skeptics call Vt. nuclear plant’s offer of cheap power a bribe on eve of crucial vote

By Dave Gram, AP
Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Skepticism meets Vt. nuke plant’s cheap-power gift

MONTPELIER, Vt. — The owners of Vermont’s only nuclear plant on Tuesday offered a shot of cut-rate power in an effort to help the state build jobs — and were immediately met by skepticism about their motives in making the pitch on the eve of a Senate vote that could lead to the plant’s demise.

Curt Hebert Jr., executive vice president of New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., said at a news conference that the Vermont Yankee plant would provide cheap electricity for economic development projects in the state for three years — but noted it was contingent on the plant being able to operate beyond the expiration of its license in 2012.

“One of the things we want to do to show Vermont that we care is we want to take 25 megawatts of electricity and we want to put it aside at 4 cents a kilowatt-hour,” Hebert said. He called the offer “an unbelievable rate for economic development.”

That price would be slightly lower than what Vermont’s power companies currently pay for wholesale power from Vermont Yankee, but the 25 megawatts would be a small fraction — less than a 12th — of the power they currently get from the plant.

Vermont is the only state in the country with a law giving the Legislature — as well as a regulatory board — a say in the relicensing of a nuclear plant.

A nuclear critic immediately labeled the plant’s offer a bribe, and the leader of the Vermont Senate said he doubted it would affect Wednesday’s debate and vote, which is expected to call for the 38-year-old nuclear plant to close in 2012.

Hebert said the offer, which he called “a gift,” would depend on Vermont Yankee getting state and federal approval for continued operation. He said it would also depend on Vermont’s power companies accepting an offer made in December that they buy more than 100 megawatts of Vermont Yankee power at 6.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for 20 years.

Senate leaders rejected the offer immediately.

“Today’s offer by Entergy Louisiana failed to address any of our primary concerns,” said Sen. Peter Shumlin, the president pro tem of the Senate, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Chief among those concerns, said Shumlin, whose district includes Vernon, where the reactor is located, are a decommissioning fund that contains less than half what is expected to be needed to clean up the reactor site when the plant is eventually shut down; a plan by Entergy to spin off Vermont Yankee and four other plants to a new company that would have heavy debt; a leak of radioactive tritium into groundwater at the plant; and alleged misstatements by Vermont Yankee officials to state regulators and lawmakers.

Sen. John Campell, a Democrat from Windsor and the Senate majority leader, called the company’s offer “a desperate attempt by Entergy Louisiana to derail the judgment of their corporation by the Senate tomorrow.”

James Moore, who lobbies lawmakers on energy issues for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said of Entergy and Vermont Yankee, “This company just doesn’t get it. Their problem is they’re just not trustworthy and their reactor is too old. To offer what amounts to a bribe at the 11th hour doesn’t change anything.”

Lawmakers should welcome the new offer from Vermont Yankee, said William Driscoll of Associated Industries of Vermont. He argued that low electric rates are key to keeping Vermont manufacturers competitive, and that Vermont Yankee is the only in-state power producer capable of offering a price as low as 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The Vermont law allowing legislators to vote on relicensing is written so that both the state House and Senate have to approve before the Public Service Board issues its decision. If either chamber kills the measure, it dies for the legislative session.

Also Tuesday, Vermont Yankee replied to a report that originated with an alleged whistleblower employee last week and was confirmed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday that the plant had had a leak of radioactive tritium years before the one first reported Jan. 7.

John Dreyfuss, the plant’s director of nuclear safety assurance, wrote to the Vermont Department of Public Service that Vermont Yankee “believes it promptly and appropriately addressed the steam leak” in question in 2005.

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