WASHINGTON - Sen. Bernie Sanders said he has received information that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission secretly voted Wednesday to urge the Justice Department to side with the owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in a lawsuit the company has filed against Vermont.
During a Thursday Senate hearing, the Vermont independent told NRC commissioners that they should tell the people of Vermont how they voted. The commissioners, however, would not say.
NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said the matter was a privileged legal discussion.
"The matter in front of the commission was one of our legal discussions, and we generally like to keep those closed matters because it preserves the opportunity for our legal counsel to give us frank legal recommendations," Jaczko said.
Two other commissioners said they had been instructed by Department of Justice officials not to comment when asked about the discussion.
"I find that a very disturbing answer," Sanders said.
Another commissioner, William Ostendorff, later said the NRC's discussions with the Department of Justice were not about whether to intervene on behalf of Entergy Corp., which owns Vermont Yankee.
Sanders said he wasn't so sure about that.
"The political reality is that the Department of Justice is going to have to make a decision" on whether to intervene, he said. "I think it's quite understandable that they would go to you guys and say, ‘NRC, what do you think?'"
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chaired the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, said she shared Sanders concerns about NRC transparency.
"I would question all of you ducking this question," she said. "I think it's wrong. I think you should think about it. You need to be as transparent as you can be."
A Department of Justice official declined to comment for this story. Sanders expects to discuss the issue today with a Department of Justice official, his spokesman said.
Vermont wants to shut down the Vernon nuclear power plant reactor after its 40-year license expires in March. Entergy has sued the state in a bid to keep the reactor running. The lawsuit is expected to be heard in court in October.
Entergy has won a 20-year extension from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but the state Legislature has not given the go-ahead for the state Public Service Board to consider issuing a certificate of public good.
During Thursday's hearing, Sanders said he learned the commissioners had voted 3-2 to recommend the Department of Justice take Entergy's side.
"It is not your business to tell the people of Vermont that they have to keep open a nuclear power plant that they don't want," he told the commissioners.
Jaczko offered to provide documentation on the meetings exclusively to Sanders, but Sanders said he didn't want information that couldn't be released publicly.
While Jaczko said he would not comment on a matter before the commission, he said it has been historically rare for the commission to get involved in pre-empting state authority.
"That is a privileged discussion, but certainly I've seen nothing that would tell me there's a pre-emption issue here," Jaczko said.
Ostendorff, however, said situations involving nuclear safety may warrant NRC engagement.
Responding to Sanders' questions, Jaczko acknowledged that commission staff have met with Entergy officials at the request of the company.
"Have representatives of the state of Vermont met with your staff?" Sanders asked.
Jaczko said, "I'm not aware of that."
Burlington Free Press staff writer Terri Hallenbeck contributed to this report.