About 250 people pack the gym of Vernon Elementary School to give comments to the Public Service Board about the continued operation of Vermont Yankee
About 250 people pack the gym of Vernon Elementary School to give comments to the Public Service Board about the continued operation of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. (Bob Audette/Reformer)
Thursday November 8, 2012

VERNON -- Supporters of the continued operation of Vermont Yankee outnumbered opponents by a margin of three-to-one at Wednesday night's Public Service Board hearing in Vernon.

While many of the supporters work at the nuclear power plant, some of them came from as far away as the Northeast Kingdom and Chittenden County, and most of them declared their support by wearing a large green sticker on their chests that read "Support Vermont Yankee, provides $100 million annually to the regional economy."

The Vermont PSB was in Vernon to take public comments on why it should or should not allow the power plant's continued operation. Though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently granted a renewed 20-year operating license to the plant, Yankee also needs a certificate of public good from the state. The plant is owned and operated by Entergy.

Prior to the meeting, 80 of the more than 250 people in the Vernon Elementary School gymnasium had signed up to offer their opinions to the board. They were each given two minutes to speak, a time limit the board strictly enforced and speakers respected.

The members of the board are James Volz, chairman, David Coen and John Burke.

Burke told those in attendance that the board was taking public comments to determine what issues should be explored during its deliberations over whether Yankee should receive a state-issued certificate of public good for continued operation for up to the next 20 years.

"We will structure for ourselves the questions that need to be explored and the issues that need to be explained," he said.

The first three speakers, Gary Sachs, Chad Simmons and William Wood, spoke in opposition to the issuance of a CPG.

"Entergy has proven it's not to be trusted," Sachs said about Yankee's Louisiana-based corporate parent.

He raised a number of issues to back up his claim, including the failure to monitor the temperature of the dry casks containing nuclear waste, the failure to reveal the presence of underground pipes containing radiological materials and the fact that the company had been sanctioned twice by the PSB -- once for bullying behavior and once for showing disdain for the board.

"Why didn't this board not haul Entergy in and pull the CPG prior to federal court involvement?" Sachs asked.

Simmons told the board it should deny a CPG to Yankee for environmental, economic and reliability issues. Especially in light of weather catastrophes in the past 12 months or so, he said it's important for the board to consider Yankee's reliability during a weather emergency.

"The plant is a burden on Vermont emergency planners," said Simmons, insisting the board should consider how severe weather might affect the plant's back-up systems.

Simmons also said the board should consider the "flawed evacuation plans" related to Yankee, which don't include contingencies for things such as the bridge work being conducted on Interstate 91.

Wood said drawing attention to the more-than-600 jobs at Yankee is "a spurious argument."

"It's not the role of Entergy to provide good jobs," he said. "Their role is to make a profit."

Wood insisted there are far better jobs in promoting energy efficiency and the "so-called" economic benefits of Yankee don't outweigh costs to the state, including how the plant's presence affects the state's "branding" and the costs of cleaning up following a potential accident.

After the three spoke, the majority of those who took the microphone spoke in favor of the plant's continued operation.

Mike Hebert, who represents Vernon and Guilford in the Vermont House of Representatives, said it's no secret which side he falls on.

Yankee and its employees have "a symbiotic relationship" with the town of Vernon, he said, praising the employees' commitment to safety at the plant and participation in the community.

He also told the board that much of the testimony it has heard from opponents of the plant is "hyperbole and few facts."

Meredith Angwin, who lives in Hartford and blogs at yesvy.blogspot.com, said the choice for Vermont was either Yankee or a gas-fired power plant because renewables are intermittent and can't supply baseload power. Gas-fired power plants affect the environment because they emit greenhouse gases, she said.

Philip Steckler, a commercial property broker in Brattleboro, reminded the board of the many economic benefits Yankee's operation contributes to Windham County and the state, including income and property taxes and the purchase of materials and services from local businesses.

"Vermont Yankee is a responsible economic engine that provides immediate benefits to the community, the state and the region," Steckler said.

He also reminded the board of the charitable donations Entergy makes to nonprofits in Windham County and the volunteer services offered by Yankee employees.

"This is a talented and generous workforce and they are important role models," said Steckler.

Several Yankee employees spoke about the opportunities that have been presented to themselves and their families as a result of their employment at the plant.

"Vermont Yankee provides high wages, stable careers for more than 600 people and millions of tax dollars," said Kenyon Webber, an electrical design engineer at the plant. "These are good community people."

Yankee offers a good wage and, if the board allows it, long-term employment, said Webber.

"Those of us who moved here to work for this facility would like to continue to work here," he said.

Other supporters came from Cambridge, Norwich, Rockingham, Addison County, Burlington and Keene, N.H.

They spoke about affordable power from the plant, its contribution to Vermont's second-in-the-nation lowest carbon footprint and the number of contract employees the plant hires during refueling outages.

Opponents of the plant's continued operation came from towns in the 10-mile emergency preparedness zone around Yankee and from towns just outside the circle.

A man from Buddhist Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Mass., who called himself Brother Toby said the board needs to consider the nuclear waste being produced by the power plant.

"It's poison for countless generations," he said, adding nuclear power is "a destroyer of worlds."

Other opponents spoke about the plant's negative impact on property values, the fact that it is "old and aging," its effect on the Connecticut River and the cost of recovering from a nuclear accident.

But Peter Ross, of Hartford, insisted there was no rational reason why the plant should be shut down.

"The fear of nuclear power is a phobia," he said. "There can be no rational argument to dissuade people from a phobia. However, do not allow the fears of others to impact the lives of those who are more rational."

Patty O'Donnell, chairwoman of the Vernon Selectboard and former legislator, said Yankee is "a high-quality nuclear power plant ... one of the best in the country."

"This isn't Entergy Louisiana," said O'Donnell. "It's Entergy Vermont Yankee. Look around this room you'll see the faces of the people who run this plant. That's Vermont Yankee."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.