Posted: Mar 3, 2010 10:08 AM by Bea Karnes, News First 5
In their annual town meeting on Tuesday, folks in this Vermont ski town voted on a town budget, debated the need for a new roof on the fire department building and adjourned at lunchtime to nosh on Tracey Coutts' famous "yummy chicken pieces" casserole and cherry pie.
But at this year's annual exercise in New England-style democracy they also weighed in on a debate that has consumed lawmakers in Montpelier and dominated radio talk shows and newspaper opinion pages: the continued operation of an aging nuclear power plant whose "leaks and lies" are fueling a push to close it.
People in Waitsfield and 13 other towns approved resolutions urging the state Legislature to pull the plug on the Vermont Yankee plant. One town voted against the measure and another opted not to take it up Tuesday. Though nonbinding, organizers hope the votes will give further momentum to a movement to stop it from operating past 2012. Voters here have had this direct democracy privilege since colonial days.
The 38-year-old power plant, which supplies about one-third of Vermont's electricity, is scheduled to close in two years, but owner Entergy Corp. is seeking permission to run it for another 20 years.
Normally, the decision would be solely in the hands of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Not in Vermont: It's the only state with a law giving the Legislature a say in the relicensing of a nuclear plant. And on Tuesday, regular people had their say, too.
Last week, the state Senate voted overwhelmingly against continued operation, though Entergy may go to court to challenge the state's authority.
The plant, which sits on the banks of the Connecticut River in the town of Vernon, has always endured a love-hate relationship with the state and its residents.
The relationship has soured in recent weeks with the discovery of leaking radioactive tritium at the plant and admissions by plant officials that they misled state regulators about the extent of underground piping on the property.
"Either they're lying or they're incompetent, and neither one is good when you're talking about a nuclear power plant," said Carol Hosford, of Waitsfield.
On Tuesday, she stood outside Waitsfield Elementary School, handing out slips of paper urging town meeting voters to support Item No. 13 on the agenda, which urged state lawmakers to turn thumbs-down on the relicensing and require Entergy to shore up a "decommissioning fund" of money to be used to render it safe once it's shut down.
Even some nuclear power supporters say it's time to pull the plug.
"I'm very much in favor of nuclear power, but I'm not in favor of continuing Vermont Yankee," said Dave Beach, 81, a retired Eastman-Kodak camera designer who lives in Stowe. "(Nuclear power) is nonpolluting and can be run properly. It's just that Vermont Yankee's not being properly managed."
While state health officials and Vermont Yankee acknowledge that the tritium has infiltrated groundwater, it has not been found in drinking water supplies.
The state believes that tritium - which can cause cancer if ingested in large amounts - has reached the Connecticut River, but it hasn't shown up in measurable levels.
"A few years back, I wasn't as adamant about it," said Cheryl Allen, a 56-year-old graphic designer. "We all use energy. It's easy to say that we need to close it up, but we all use energy, so it's kind of hypocritical. But when it starts polluting the Connecticut River, it just can't go on."