NRC closed meeting raises ire

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BRATTLEBORO -- An invitation-only meeting being hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Keene, N.H., on April 14 is meant to give state, county and local officials a chance to ask the NRC questions about any of its activities, said a spokesman for the NRC.

Neil Sheehan said the meeting is closed to the public and the media to allow officials to engage in "a free flow of communications" about issues they may not be knowledgeable about.

"An official who might not feel comfortable speaking at one of our public meetings might be more willing to discuss issues in a closed setting," he said.

The meeting is scheduled from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Keene Country Club.

The invitation sent out stated the meeting was closed because "Our goal is for the invitees to feel comfortable in an environment that won't lead to possible misquotes in the media or misunderstandings with your constituents."

Sheehan admitted the invitation was "inartfully worded," but he said, the NRC is not holding the meeting in Keene to get around Vermont's Open Meetings Law.

"We certainly didn't choose this location to circumvent Vermont's Open Meetings Law," said Sheehan. "The law doesn't apply in this case anyway. We are doing it to accommodate the needs of the legislators."

If a quorum of the members of a decision-making body is meeting, they must do so in an open session, according to both Vermont and New Hampshire laws.

But that's only if they are discussing official business or taking a vote on such.

Elected town, county and state officials are allowed to attend trainings, informational meetings and seminars, which are not subject to the open meetings law of either state.

It's not the first time the NRC has hosted such an invite-only meeting, said Sheehan.

"We have held government-to-government meetings for state and local officials in the past involving numerous other nuclear power plants," said Sheehan. "The participating officials have told us they have found them to be of value in enhancing their knowledge of plant issues."

At the meeting, the NRC will discuss its independent inspection of Entergy's groundwater initiative program and the NRC's review of the activities related to the recent tritium leak at the Entergy's Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

"The NRC is providing this information in advance of the public release of its inspection report on this subject to better equip government stakeholders to answer questions they may receive from their constituents," stated the notice, and is meant "to best facilitate an open and courteous discussion "

That's exactly the problem, said two people opposed to the operation of Yankee past 2012, at which time the plant's operating license expires.

"My concern is that the NRC is giving one-sided inaccurate information that carries forward the industry mantra that tritium is OK," said Maggie Gundersen, of Fairewinds Associates.

The NRC relies on old data as it relates to the dangers of tritium, she said, and it is trying to foist that old information off on officials who might not know any better.

Because it's a closed meeting, those officials won't hear from people who disagree with the NRC's and the industry's statements about tritium.

The onus is on public officials to "refuse to participate in this insult to the public," said Ray Shadis, technical consultant to the New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.

"They want to have the opportunity to brainwash local and state officials without anyone there who knew anything about NRC or nuclear power to question or contradict their word," he said.

Deb Markowitz, Vermont's attorney general, said members of state bodies are allowed to attend such closed meetings, but she said she found the closed meeting "legally questionable and ethically repugnant," because it will deal with issues related to public health and safety, which are of paramount concern to area residents.

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Jim Matteau, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, wasn't invited to the meeting, but if he had been he said he wouldn't go unless it's open to the public.

"I believe it's unethical to attend a meeting that is closed to the public when there is no reason to do so," said Matteau.

Holding closed meetings reaffirms many people's belief that the NRC is "the lap dog of the industry," said Matteau.

"It's a dog and pony show," he said.

Rep. Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro, said she plans to attend the meeting to see if the information they will be presenting is different from the information that has so far been presented to the public.

But by holding a closed meeting the NRC is "shooting themselves in the foot," she said.

"The NRC is losing credibility in Vermont in parallel with Entergy having lost credibility in Vermont," said Edwards.

Though Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, was invited to the meeting, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, was not.

"It is puzzling that speaker in the state that actually hosts the power plant hasn't been invited to a meeting of elected officials," said Shumlin.

Vermont's federal congressional delegation also took issue with the NRC's closed meeting.

In a letter to the NRC Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., called on the NRC to reconsider its decision to hold the closed meeting.

The meeting "only add(s) to the growing public skepticism about the handling of oversight at Vermont Yankee, and could curtail participation from Vermont officials," stated the letter.

Any discussion related to Yankee should be held in a public meeting, they stated. The NRC has scheduled a public meeting and "workshop" in Brattleboro on April 12 at the Ramada Inn on Autumn Road from 1 to 8 p.m.

The April 12 meeting is meant "to answer the public's questions concerning tritium and to provide a perspective on the potential public health risk," according to the meeting notice.

It's also meant "to inform the public of the regulatory requirements relating to tritium, and how the NRC fulfills its mission."

"This will be an open house workshop with a seven-hour window to ask any questions you like," said Sheehan.

In addition, Entergy will be hosting an informational meeting regarding Vermont Yankee.

But Matteau said the NRC and Entergy have an ulterior motive for holding the public meeting, at which he expects many people will be expressing their displeasure about the closed meeting on April 14.

"The NRC will then point at them and say, this is why we don't have meetings here," he said.

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Invitees include the governors of New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts, Massachusetts legislators Stanley Rosenberg, Denis E. Guyer and Christopher Donlean, Vermont legislators Peter Shumlin, Jeanette White, Patty O'Donnel, Virginia Milkey, Mollie Burke, Sarah Edwards, David Deen, Michael Mrowicki, Richard Marek and Ann Manwaring, Molly Kelly, senator for Cheshire County, New Hampshire legislators Timothy Butterworth, William Butynski, Daniel Carr, Barbara Richardson, Peter Allen, Nancy Carlson, Jane Johnson and Alfred Lerandeau, selectboard members from Guilford, Vernon, Brattleboro, Dummerston, Marlboro, Halifax and Chesterfield, Winchester, Hinsdale, Swanzey and Richmond, N.H., and Bernardston, Colrain, Gill, Greenfield, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick, Mass., and representatives from the departments of public health, public service and emergency management from New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.


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