The Dicey Economics of Hosting a Nuclear Plant

Sandy Levine | @CLFLevine

photo courtesy of topher76@flickr.com

This past week has shown Vermont first-hand the high cost of nuclear power. Hosting a plant in your state is clearly a high-stakes bargain.

Vermont went to Court in Manhattan this week before a three judge panel at the United States Court of Appeals. (Read more here and here). It had fifteen minutes for its lawyer to explain to the judges why the decision of the District Court blocking the actions of the Vermont Legislature should be reversed. A tough task.

With clarity and nimbleness, Vermont proved it was up to the task. Its lawyer, Attorney David Frederick, an experienced appellate lawyer who argued a case last week before the United States Supreme Court, explained that Vermont has every right to determine Vermont Yankee’s fate. And doing so does not impinge on the federal government’s oversight of radiological issues.

In a nutshell, there were three points.

First the United States Supreme Court case from 1983 that let stand a California law enacting a moratorium on nuclear plants would allow the Vermont law. If a state can ban all nuclear plants, it can certainly allow the Legislature to determine the fate of one plant.

Second, the lease on Vermont Yankee expired and like a landlord, Vermont can simply refuse to renew the lease. Period. Any tenant knows this. Vermont is hosting this plant and can say it wants the property used for another purpose.

Third, Vermont has huge skin in the game and economic exposure from Vermont Yankee. If Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee, goes bankrupt or simply chooses to walk away, Vermonters are left holding the bag for what Conservation Law Foundation has described as the nuclear equivalent of junk car in its backyard. This possibility is more likely following recent reports that Vermont Yankee is not pulling its weight and that Entergy would be better off closing the plant.

The stakes are high. Apart from hosting this plant, Entergy is seeking to recoup over $4 million in legal fees, and now has four law firms working to push every legal angle possible. Times change. When Vermont first approved the Vermont Yankee facility in the 1970s, there was a hearing for three days before the Vermont Public Service Board. Clearly nuclear power and hosting plants is more expensive and time consuming than ever.

Vermont is right to begin extracting itself from this nuclear legacy. Unfortunately, that is proving to be not so easy.

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