Proposed nuke panel shakeup irks senator

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BRATTLEBORO — A planned reshuffling of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel could bolster Windham County's representation.

But the changes also would remove a longtime state lawmaker — Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange — from the panel. And MacDonald, a sometimes-gruff critic of Vermont Yankee, is objecting to the idea that the advisory group needs a different legislative perspective.

While acknowledging that the change is "not personal," MacDonald added: "I'm the outsider. They want someone more provincial."

Panel Chairwoman Kate O'Connor responded by saying the advisory panel needs a stronger legislative presence, especially as regulatory reviews begin for the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee.

"From my perspective, it's very important that the Legislature - both the House and Senate - understand that what is going on at Yankee is important to Windham County and is important to the entire state," O'Connor said.

The state Legislature created the 19-member Citizens Advisory Panel in 2014. It is the successor to the seven-member Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel, which had been functioning since Entergy bought Vermont Yankee in 2002.

The larger Citizens Advisory Panel was designed to focus on decommissioning issues. In addition to advising the governor, Legislature and state agencies, the panel is supposed to "to serve as a conduit for public information and education on and to encourage community involvement in matters related to the decommissioning" of Vermont Yankee.

It held its first meeting in September 2014, three months before the Vernon plant stopped producing power.

While some faces have changed since that time, the basic structure of the panel - in terms of the entities and agencies that are represented - has remained the same.

But O'Connor now wants to shake that up a bit.

Under her proposal, the panel's two Vermont legislators would no longer be representatives of the House and Senate Natural Resources and Energy committees. That's in part because that House committee doesn't exist anymore, with its duties having been reassigned at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session.

In place of those two members, O'Connor wants to add three local legislators to the panel: There would be a senator from Windham County appointed by the Senate president pro tem; a legislator from Windham County appointed by the House speaker; and the state representative from Vernon.

That structure would retain Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, on the panel. Hebert previously had been a member due to his serving on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

But O'Connor's proposal would boot MacDonald - a 30-year veteran of the Legislature and a former member of the state's previous nuclear advisory panel - due to his lack of connection to Windham County.

In announcing her idea at Thursday's VNDCAP meeting, O'Connor made a point of looking toward MacDonald and saying "it's nothing personal."

Instead, she cited Entergy's plan to sell Vermont Yankee to a New York-based decommissioning company, which requires an in-depth review by federal and state regulators.

"I think we need Windham County legislators involved," O'Connor said. "Windham County legislators who are able to convey to their colleagues what's important to us in this transaction moving forward."

In a later interview, O'Connor also said she wants a "consistent presence" from lawmakers on the advisory panel. Though she did not single anyone out, neither of Vermont's legislative representatives have been regulator attendees at VNDCAP meetings to date.

When MacDonald is in attendance, he tends to be the harshest Entergy critic on the panel. On Thursday night, he offered a long speech criticizing the plant's owner for not undertaking immediate decommissioning.

And MacDonald expressed skepticism that NorthStar - which is supposed to accelerate Vermont Yankee decommissioning by decades - can follow through on its promises.

In a subsequent interview, MacDonald also was critical of VNDCAP. He compared the mood on the panel to Stockholm syndrome, a psychological condition in which a captive begins to trust and identify with his or her captor.

For all the talk of examining NorthStar's finances, "there was very little discussion of the evidence of Vermont Yankee officials and the representations they have made over the years," MacDonald said.

O'Connor countered that the advisory panel consistently has taken a detailed look at decommissioning and has at times taken positions contrary to those of the plant's owner.

"I disagree that there's one voice on that panel, and I disagree with the premise that the panel sees everything the way either Entergy or NorthStar does," O'Connor said.

There was general agreement among VNDCAP members that O'Connor's proposed structural change was the right move. There were no votes against the plan, though four representatives of state agencies joined MacDonald in abstaining from the vote.

The final word belongs to the Legislature, since the law creating the advisory panel must be changed in order to change and increase membership as O'Connor is proposing. O'Connor, who was re-elected as the panel's chairwoman Thursday, said she would ask members of Windham County's delegation to introduce such legislation.

"We don't know where this is going to go in the Legislature," she said. "We may have a change. We may not."

MacDonald said he thinks the restructuring "isn't likely to happen." However, he pledged to abstain from voting if the matter comes up in the Senate.

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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