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Vermont's fanatic anti-nuke luddites

Over Vermonts 230 years several strange political movements persisted long enough to enter the history books. Among them, anti-Masonry, the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement, and the Prohibition crusade all fizzled after initial successes. The most notable fringe movement still alive today is the crusade against nuclear energy. It is, naturally, focused on Vermonts lone nuclear reactor, Vermont Yankee, that went on line in 1972. In the face of all science, reason, and experience, the anti-nuclear zealots fiercely maintain that the Vernon nuclear power plant is a standing death threat against the population for miles around, that its pall of radiation will produce deformed children, and that the plants present owner Entergy is a reckless and sinister enterprise making enormous profits while scornfully dismissing the concerns of its likely Vermont victims. In recent years the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Pollution has been joined by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. VPIRG wants nuclear energy terminated so that its preferred alternative, 420 foot wind turbines, will become economically competitive. The attack on Vermont Yankee has escalated since 2003, and especially since 2007, when the champion of the anti-nuke/VPIRG forces, Windham County Sen. Peter Shumlin, returned to the Senate and again became its president pro tem. In return for the states non-objection to an increase of Vermont Yankees electricity output by 20%, the legislators in 2003 demanded that the company pay $7.8 million to clean up algae in Lake Champlain, and another $2.1 million to subsidize low income home heating. In return for state permission to store its oldest and least radioactive spent fuel rods in dry casks instead of in a water pool, the 2005 legislature required Entergy to pay $28 million into a clean energy fund, from which subsidies would be distributed to wind, solar and methane projects. The 2006 legislature required that before Entergy can take operate under a 20-year Nuclear Regulatory Commission license extension likely to take effect in 2012, it must come back to Montpelier to be forced to make yet more extortion payments. Last year, to fund his coveted $25 million thermal efficiency utility, Sen. Shumlin tried to break the 2005 agreement and impose a new tax on the plant's stored fuel rods. When other legislators balked, Sen. Shumlin then invented an excess revenues tax falling only on Entergy. A House-Senate conference committee dropped that in favor of a new tax on Yankees electrical output. That in turn fell to Gov. Jim Douglas's veto. This years attack is twofold. One is a bill (S.364) to require Vermont Yankee to undergo an independent comprehensive vertical audit and reliability assessment. The cost of this lengthy and unprecedented procedure would far exceed the cost of periodic NRC inspections, and it would be borne by electricity ratepayers. Thats bad enough, but the real show stopper is S.373. Entergy is undergoing a rational corporate restructuring that will separate its nuclear reactor fleet from any lingering connection with regulated public utilities. This bill demands that in return for Public Service Board approval of a new corporation's acquisition of Vermont Yankee, Entergy must immediately pay as much as $400 million more into its Yankee decommissioning fund. This is on top of the $440 million already in the fund earning interest, which will grow to be more than enough to decommission the plant when its extended license expires in 2032. This requirement would of course force hundreds of millions of dollars onto the backs of Vermont's ratepayers. The Associated Industries of Vermont puts it succinctly: S.373 is a fairly transparent attempt by anti-nuclear legislators to precipitate a financial crisis for Vermont Yankee to jeopardize its continued operation. In pursuing this bill, its supporters are threatening Vermont's most valuable, clean, and reliable source of electricity in the years ahead. The great irony is that Sen. Shumlin and his VPIRG allies are pressing legislation (S.350) to force Vermonters to stop emitting greenhouse gases that supposedly threaten the planet with Al Gores Heat Death. Yet they are also working hard to shut down the nuclear plant that produces dependable lowest-cost electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases at all. This contradiction simply does not compute. The anti-nuclear activists will not be satisfied until every trace of Vermont Yankee is gone, and the Vernon site is returned to the peaceful wilderness it was when only the Abenakis roamed. This constant warfare against nuclear energy is, to put it plainly, mindless fanaticism. The sooner it goes the way of anti-Masonry, Know-Nothingism, and Prohibition, the better off Vermonters will be. John McClaughry is president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). He was formerly vice chair of the Vermont Senate Education Committee.

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