When she heard about the recent Vermont Yankee ruling, commentator and
former Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin felt a strong sense of deja vu.
Governor Peter Shumlin’s efforts to challenge the safety of the Vermont
Yankee Nuclear Power plant does not mark the first time that a Vermont
governor went toe to toe with the plant. Way back in 1985, when I was
Governor, I learned that the plant had falsified inspection reports for
years and that thousands of unchecked parts may have been installed.
plant had an unplanned shut down for eight months to replace the entire
recirculation piping unit. Both plant officials and the Nuclear
Regulatory commission had kept me in the dark. The state’s nuclear
engineer concluded that probably violations had occurred in the "storage
and handling program for safety related materials." The plant issued
denials. Who was right? How could I assure Vermonters that the plant was
safe? That is the same question that is being asked today.
have the responsibility to protect the safety of their citizens. If the
plant accidentally releases radiation, the Governor takes immediate
action, ordering an evacuation, issuing iodine pills. But the Governor
had no power to prevent an accident in the first place.
step was to obtain an impartial evaluation of the plant. It was not so
easy to get the safety question answered because "experts" were divided
into two camps, either anti nuclear or pro nuclear scientists. After
many insistent phone calls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I
reached the New England regional director. We toured the plant together
and as a result, he ordered a complete inspection of Vermont Yankee. He
was as concerned as I was, and recommended major safety changes in the
plant which were implemented. I established a new position – an on site
nuclear inspector to act as liaison between the NRC and the state.
went a step further. I brought a resolution to the National Governor’s
Association, which stated that Governors should have more authority over
the safety of their nuclear power plants. New Hampshire Governor John
Sununu was not pleased. He saw this as a direct attract on the approval
of Seabrook plant, which had been beset by demonstrations. In one
outburst, he told my staff person, "I’m going to raise a million dollars
to defeat your governor." It never happened.
occurred in 1986, calls for a shutdown of Vermont Yankee began. The
question remains: how can the public know whether a nuclear power plant
is safe to operate? What was underscored in the recent Vermont court
case is that safety questions are decided by the federal government. The
state, can, however, make an economic argument-a more difficult task.
best solution would be for a more safety oriented Nuclear Regulatory
Commission to work with Vermont and decide whether Vermont Yankee’s
lifespan is safe to extend. To succeed, the NRC would have to change
course from being a nuclear energy salesman to being a nuclear cop.