BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced Wednesday that unless his office received new evidence, no perjury charges will be brought against current or past employees of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
After conducting an investigation for more than a year, Sorrell said he lacked sufficient evidence that employees lied under oath about underground pipes, which subsequently leaked radioactive isotopes into the ground in 2010.
"Clearly, Vermont Yankee personnel repeatedly failed to meet a minimally acceptable standard of credibility and trustworthiness, but proving that perjury took place is another matter entirely," Sorrell said.
"Perjury is very tough to prove," he explained. "You have to prove that it was not just under oath but that the party knew the information was false when they said it. We just don’t have enough evidence. If we had the smoking gun we’d bring charges, but we don’t."
During the discovery of a tritium leak at the plant in Vernon in January of 2010, Entergy personnel told state officials that during sworn testimony and through other communications in 2008 and 2009 that they had provided incorrect information denying the existence of the plant’s underground piping system, which carries radioactive materials.
In a press release, Gov. Peter Shumlin wrote that although he respected Sorrell’s conclusion, it didn’t mean that Entergy officials told the truth about the underground pipes.
"The fact is that radioactive tritium leaked from these undisclosed underground pipes," Shumlin wrote in a press release. "We expect our businesses to act in a credible and trustworthy manner. Although the attorney general has decided not to pursue charges here, his investigation clearly describes the pattern of misinformation by Entergy Louisiana."
Shumlin, who was Senate President Pro Tem at the time of leak, along with then-Governor Jim Douglas and speaker of the House of Representatives Shap Smith, D-Lamoille/Washington, requested Sorrell to investigate and determine whether Entergy personnel had violated Vermont’s criminal law when providing the false information.
After meeting with the attorney general in 2010, Entergy’s general counsel stated they would be very cooperative during the investigation and they were, Sorrell said.
"My guess is that they felt it was to their benefit to be cooperative because they knew we weren’t going away," he said. "They deserve credit for not stonewalling the office."
Bob Stannard, spokesman for Citizen Awareness Network, said that if Entergy truly believed its representatives didn’t deliberately mislead state officials why were so many of them reprimanded or fired?
"Even Entergy knew its personnel were not telling the truth," Stannard said. "Not knowing whether or not they have these pipes, that inevitably leaked radiation into the state’s groundwater, indicates a level of incompetence and lack of knowledge that should be disturbing to us all. They were either liars or incompetent, not a good position either way."
In an e-mail to the Reformer, Rob Williams, a spokesman for Vermont Yankee, wrote that some employees "failed to live up to our highest expectations and values" and that after "internal investigations, we took disciplinary action against them over a year ago."
Stannard said that while under oath, Entergy officials paused for an uncharacteristically long 12 seconds before answering.
"If I came home at 2 a.m., and my wife asked me where I’d been and I took 12 seconds to come up with an answer, she would know I was lying," he said. "She may not be able to prove it, but she would know."
Ray Shadis, spokesman for the New England Coalition, faulted the attorney general for neglecting to interview a number of people who were in attendance during the hearings.
"We could tell him what the context was," he said, adding the statements made during the hearings were "intentionally misleading and intentional misrepresentations."
"In the hearings they completely misrepresented the facts," said Shadis. "The attorney general didn’t interview any of us who sat there and saw (former site vice president) Jay Thayer hesitate and then put on his honest-to-gosh face. That’s a sure tip to anybody that you are about to hear a whopper."
But Sorrell told the Reformer that his office reviewed in depth the transcripts from the meeting.
"And we interviewed the attorney for the Department of Public Safety. He could verify the accuracy of the transcript," he said. "The questions and exact answers are right there in my report. We have an accurate understanding of what went on in the hearings."
A witness’ "interpretation" of what was said during the hearings doesn’t hold up in a court of law, said Sorrell, because only the transcript is the official record of the meeting.
Paul Burns, director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said that since the attorney general decided that perjury wasn’t committed there was only one other explanation.
"The second possible explanation for Entergy’s failure to tell the truth was that officials at all levels were so breathtakingly incompetent that they were utterly unaware of important design aspects of the nuclear facility, including the existence of faulty pipes carrying radioactive material," Burns wrote in a press release.
Sorrell’s decision may come as good news to Entergy officials who were in danger of being criminally charged but it’s hardly good news to Vermonters, he wrote.
"The bottom line is that it’s a sad day for Vermont when the company that runs our state’s only nuclear plant gets to breathe a sigh of relief at being found to be monumentally incompetent as opposed to criminally liable," Burns wrote.
Although the active investigation is closed, should new evidence be brought forth within the statute of limitations, Sorrell said his office would take another look at the situation.
Josh Stilts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.
Reformer Staffer Bob Audette contributed to this story.