Energy issues spark debate in gubernatorial race

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(Host) Energy issues have generated some heat in this year’s gubernatorial race.

The major candidates are divided over the future of Vermont Yankee and the role of wind power in the state’s energy portfolio.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) House Speaker Gaye Symington clearly thinks Governor Jim Douglas is vulnerable on energy issues. The Democratic challenger used her scarce campaign dollars to launch a TV ad that criticizes Douglas for favoring the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

(YankeeAd) “The situation at Vermont Yankee is disturbing. So is Jim Douglas’ response. He opposes increased oversight, opposes requiring the owners to pay for all the clean up. So Vermonters could get stuck with a $500 million dollar bill.”

(Dillon) A second anti-Douglas ad – paid for by Democracy for America – juxtaposes images of Vermont Yankee with those of nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

The Douglas campaign complained about the DFA ad. But the governor says he’s disturbed by the recurring problems at the plant.

(Douglas) “Those incidents have shaken my confidence, as I’m sure they have that of everybody in our state. To see the image of a collapsed cooling tower in the newspaper, to see issues like the toaster fire and the air duct fire a few years ago, certainly raises questions about reliability.”

(Dillon) But Douglas has twice used his veto authority to support Vermont Yankee. He says if the plant passes a safety review, it should be re-licensed for another 20 years. He says Yankee provides clean and relatively inexpensive power. And in the last legislative session, he opposed a bill that required the plant’s owners to set aside money to cover decommissioning costs.

At the time, he warned that the decommissioning bill could raise electric rates.

(Douglas) “A lot of manufacturers say that the cost of electricity is a major concern for them. We can’t make it any worse and I have no doubt that interfering with the arrangement that was made with Vermont Yankee will have a major adverse impact.”

(Dillon) Symington says decommissioning is bound to get more expensive, and that electricity customers need a guarantee that Yankee’s owner has enough money to pay for it.

(Symington) “You know, I think it’s just one more example of Governor Douglas apologizing for and protecting the interests of the owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, rather than standing up for Vermonters.”

(Dillon) The Democrat favors more commercial wind development while Douglas opposes what he calls the "industrialization" of the state’s mountain tops.

But Symington is not unalterably opposed to nuclear power. She says Yankee could run for a few more years. But she says the state needs alternatives – such as major new wind projects – to give utilities leverage in their negotiations with Yankee over future power contracts.

(Symington) “Regardless of what you think about nuclear power it doesn’t make common sense or business to walk up to a major negotiation with no alternatives, no plan in your back pocket. And that’s the wall we’re being backed into by Governor Douglas.”

(Dillon) Independent candidate Anthony Pollina is a big skeptic of Vermont Yankee, and says the state can do without it. In a VPR gubernatorial debate, Pollina said the state should look closer to home to meet its electricity needs.

(Pollina) “We have missed the opportunity to buy dams on the Connecticut River and make other investments in renewables under the Douglas administration. I think that our power future should be based on Vermont-owned and Vermont-controlled renewable power.”

(Dillon) Douglas doubts that in-state renewable energy can replace the huge power contracts that now supply two-thirds of the state’s energy needs. He hopes that the state’s two major sources of electricity – Yankee and Hydro Quebec – will still play a big role in the future.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.


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