Editorial: VY and Vermont's energy future (Brattleboro Reformer)

To the surprise of virtually no one, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided that the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon is safe to run for another 20 years.

The main conclusion of the more than 800-page report from the NRC is that Entergy Nuclear, the plant's operator, has fulfilled all of the NRC requirements for relicensing.

While the NRC outlined 51 conditions that Vermont Yankee must meet by the time the license expires on March 31, 2012, Entergy has already agreed to the conditions -- mostly covering how to deal with the aging of key metal components in the plant.

The license renewal process for Vermont Yankee has been more drawn out and subject to more external scrutiny than other plant around the country, but the reality is that the NRC has yet to reject a license renewal.

There are still a few more formalities on the NRC's end of things. There will be hearings before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board this summer regarding contentions by the New England Coalition about cracks in the plant's steam dryer and the state of aged metal components such as pipes and joints. These hearings, however, are not likely to slow the relicensing process for the 1972 reactor.

The last hurdle for Entergy to clear is the Vermont Legislature and the Vermont Public Service Board. Under state law, Vermont lawmakers have the authority to say whether the PSB should issue the needed certificate of public good that would allow Vermont Yankee to operate until 2032.

The Legislature is expected to vote on this matter next year. As for this year, lawmakers have yet to consider whether Vermont Yankee should be subjected to an independent safety review before being allowed to renew its license.

In theory, the Legislature could stop the renewal process cold. In practice, we don't believe they would do so.

Even though public opinion has shifted toward closing Vermont Yankee, there is a lot of pressure from the state's business community as well as from the state's electric utilities to keep it open.

Because the state relies on Vermont Yankee for one-third of its electrical power and because no steps have been taken to plan for a post-Vermont Yankee energy future, it would be extremely difficult for any lawmaker to vote to shut the plant down.

Monday's NRC report marks the beginning of the end of the relicensing process. But the various anti-nuclear groups that have battled the NRC and Entergy every step of the way have performed a valuable service.

The increased scrutiny that Entergy has been subjected to helps ensure it will run the plant safely and not scrimp on maintenance and repairs. That's why we believe the independent safety assessment is a crucial step in the process -- lawmakers and the Douglas administration must not cave in now.

While it is reasonably safe to assume that Vermont Yankee will be running until 2032, the state needs to come up with a coherent and achievable plan soon for its energy future, because it will likely take another 20 years to come up with a replacement for Vermont Yankee's electricity.

Neither thing will happen without continued public engagement. Now is not the time to give up on the idea of a nuclear-free Vermont.