VERNON -- The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is a few hours' drive from Attorney General William Sorrell's Montpelier office.
But the embattled Vernon plant looms large over Sorrell's re-election campaign and the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.
While both Sorrell and Democratic challenger T.J. Donovan say the facility should be closed, the incumbent is taking heat for his handling of a protracted legal fight with plant owner Entergy.
"The Attorney General should have brought in outside help early," said Donovan spokesman Ryan Emerson. "Constitutional law is a select practice, and you need to bring in experts."
Sorrell, however, bristled at that suggestion.
"He's just wrong on that," Sorrell said during an interview at the Reformer offices on Monday. "We gave the Legislature all the good advice it needed to enact a statute that can withstand attack."
The incumbent is campaigning on his 15 years of experience as he looks to fend off a strong challenge from Donovan, who is Chittenden County state's attorney and has been endorsed by the Vermont Democratic Party.
The two have clashed on a variety of matters. But Sorrell acknowledges that Vermont Yankee has become a big issue even outside Windham County's borders.
"It's a very important issue for us in the campaign, and it's a very important issue for Vermont," Sorrell said, adding that he hears from supporters and critics of the nuclear facility
"If you want a Vermont Yankee fight, then I'm the guy you want to vote for on Aug. 28," he said.
But Sorrell suffered a major defeat in that fight when a federal judge in January ruled that state lawmakers strayed too far into federal jurisdiction when they voted to forbid the Vermont Public Service Board from issuing a certificate for the plant's continued operation.
Vermont officials have appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, the plant continues to operate.
On his campaign website, Sorrell declares that the fight will go, "if necessary, to the United States Supreme Court."
Emerson said Donovan agrees that "the plant needs to be shut down."
"Vermonters deserve to have a say in their energy future," he said, adding that Donovan "will not be a Monday-morning quarterback" regarding the details of the legal case.
However, Donovan nonetheless has been critical of Sorrell's handling of the case. Emerson contends the Attorney General did not have and did not quickly seek additional legal expertise.
"You can't dabble in constitutional law," Emerson said Monday.
In an earlier interview with the Reformer, Donovan put it this way: "Progress is doing it right the first time out. That's good government."
Sorrell, however, contends he has "some very smart constitutional-law experts in my office" and advised state legislators extensively and appropriately.
"We had private meetings and public meetings in which we told them what we could and could not do," Sorrell said Monday, during a campaign swing through Brattleboro, his final trip to Windham County before next Tuesday's Primary.
He also noted that the state has retained the Washington, D.C., -based law firm Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel to assist with the Entergy case. The firm has "nationally recognized expertise" in federal cases including arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Sorrell said he wants voters to give him a chance to continue the Entergy fight.
"We should not be switching attorney generals in the middle of an important environmental case," he said.
Jack McMullen disagrees. The Burlington resident is the lone Republican running for attorney general, so next week's primary is a formality for him on the way to a November matchup with either Sorrell or Donovan.
But McMullen is weighing in on Vermont Yankee. Shutting down the plant "is a legitimate policy issue," and Gov. Peter Shumlin is "entitled to try to pursue that," McMullen said.
"The Attorney General is a separately elected official," he added. "His job is to look at the law and apply it evenly and fairly."
McMullen noted that the state already has lost once in court, and he believes Vermont has "a snowball's chance in hell of prevailing" on appeal.
Rather than continuing a drawn-out, expensive legal fight, McMullen advocates extensive talks with Entergy.
"Let's go to Yankee, if safety's your concern ... and let's negotiate with them," he said. "It's making the best of a bad situation."
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.