Editorial: Safety should be top issue for Vermont Yankee (Burlington Free Press)

When talking about the future of Vermont Yankee, there is no ignoring the safety issues surrounding nuclear power, such as safety and the secure storage of radioactive spent fuel.

Public Service Commissioner David O'Brien said the recent incidents at the nuclear power plant, including the collapse of a cooling tower in August, have raised the level of concern among Vermonters about the safety of Vermont Yankee.

"It's safe to say the public's confidence level has been shaken," O'Brien told The Burlington Free Press. Given the stakes involved, an independent safety assessment is a reasonable course, a course backed by the state's congressional delegation and now the Douglas administration. When it comes to nuclear power, only the most informed decisions will do.

Vermont Yankee has nothing to lose from an independent assessment if the plant is operating safely, and everything to gain in terms of public confidence. We expect nothing less than a thorough and unbiased assessment.

Vermont Yankee, the state's sole nuclear power plant, supplies roughly a third of Vermont's electricity needs at below-market prices. Vermont Yankee power has been helping keep the state's electricity rates among the lowest in New England and in allowing Vermont to boast one of the smallest carbon foot prints of any state.

The power contract with Vermont Yankee ends in 2012, the year the plant's operating license expires. Entergy Nuclear, which is seeking a 20-year extension on its operating license for Vermont Yankee, has maintained there is no need for an independent review of the plant or its operations.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel this month granted an anti-nuclear energy group's request to look into metal fatigue at the 40-year-old plant as part of the relicensing process. But the agency is cool to the idea of an independent assessment saying the agency's own efforts are adequate.

"We will not close the door on any requests," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan told the Free Press, "but as of Nov. 14, 2007, we do not believe it is necessary."

While simple fear or distrust of nuclear power is insufficient reason to try to shut down a critical source of power for the state, Vermonters' safety must come first. Before signing off on the license extension, state and federal authorities have a duty to convince the public that Vermont Yankee can operate safely for the next 20 years.