Year in Review, Part 5: Energy issues

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(Host) Energy was a big issue in 2004. Most of the energy matters that Vermont dealt with in the last year cropped up early and stayed in play for months.

Today as we continue our weeklong “Year in Review,” VPR’s Steve Delaney looks at nuclear power, hydro-electric dams, wind power and transmission lines.

(Delaney) Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant in Vernon, started the year on the defensive, and stayed there for months. Early in January, Yankee spokesman Rob Williams was apologizing after it came out that Yankee had started work on a new on-site building, without getting the required permits.

(Willams) “I can assure you that it was an honest mistake made by Vermont Yankee employees who were under the impression that limited preparatory work could be done.”

(Delaney) It was in January that Governor Jim Douglas told his staff to pursue the idea of having the state buy a series of hydro-electric dams along the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers. That pursuit would last until December, when Vermont finally withdrew from the purchase idea, when the price-tag at auction exceeded a half-billion dollars.

Also in January, the state began seeking public input about whether wind power turbines should be allowed on state land. Governor Douglas said the issue was a dilemma.

(Douglas) “It’s really a clash of values. The value of encouraging renewable energy sources, generating energy from a source that is renewable and non-polluting, and the aesthetic concerns that are quite legitimate from people that are concerned about the impact on the view sheds of our state.”

(Delaney) The wind power debate went on sporadically all year, and the tone was set early when Tom Broderick of the Kingdom Commons group called for a moratorium on wind farms.

(Broderick) “There are many unanswered questions about environmental impact, about economic impact, about cultural impact, about what this will do to the soul of this state that need to be answered, need to be discussed vigorously.”

(Delaney) That vigorous discussion lasted until the middle of December, when the state ruled that while commercial-sized wind-farm operations are to be prohibited on state-owned lands, smaller wind-power operations might be all right.

VELCO, the state’s electricity transmission company, intensified its effort to get permission to build a high-tension line along the Lake Champlain shoreline, through Rutland, Addison and Chittenden Counties. The opposition, centered in the up-scale towns of Charlotte and Shelburne, argued that putting the line near schools or homes would be a health hazard and that the power lines would be unsightly and should be either buried or moved altogether. That dispute remained unresolved at the end of the year.

The Town of Rockingham, working independently, did manage to arrange the purchase of one of the Connecticut River hydro-electric dams, for $73 million, in the state’s only successfully completed energy-issue negotiation of the year.

But it was Vermont Yankee that made the energy news most often. In March, the Public Service Board said there should be an extensive review of safety and engineering issues. Here’s how Raymond Shadis of the New England Coalition put that concern:

(Shadis) “Before this plant is permitted to be put to great stress, we want to determine what condition it’s in and the condition of its operations to see if it’s likely to withstand the uprate.”

(Delaney) At a spirited public meeting in Vernon at the end of March, voices in the crowd made it clear that safety was an issue.

(Speaker) “Taking one of the oldest plants in the country and requesting a maximum uprate for it of 20 percent, a 20 percent increase in power. That doesn’t feel safe to us. The fact that the NRC has never rejected an uprate request, that doesn’t feel safe for us.” (Sound of crowd applause.)(Dillon) “This was not your normal NRC hearing. Five-hundred people showed up and they just really took it over. The meeting was really out of control, and to me it just showed the depth of public skepticism about Vermont Yankee’s plans to increase power by 20 percent. And probably the biggest applause of the night came for a member of the state Public Service Board, who called on the NRC to do an independent engineering assessment of the reactor.”

(Delaney) It would quickly get worse for Vermont Yankee. Within three weeks Entergy reported that two sections of a spent fuel rod were missing and may have been missing since the late 1970s. Plant spokesman Brian Cosgrove tried to reassure the public, and state regulators.

(Cosgrove) “I want to emphasize that there is not a threat to public health and safety. We assume they’re in the pool and we will locate them after we conduct a full and thorough search both of the pool itself and records going back to 1979 so that the records may indicate that they were moved or placed elsewhere in the pool and we’ll be researching that as well.”

(Delaney) A search by remote camera found nothing and neither did a paper chase to find evidence that the missing rods had been shipped somewhere else. Months later, the fuel rods turned up in the pool, where they’d been all along.

That incident and an onsite fire that revealed flaws in the emergency notification system all led to the state’s insistence that an independent engineering review be conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. Reluctantly, the NRC agreed and in late December, reported to a carefully chosen audience in Brattleboro that while there are flaws at Yankee, they’re not the kind of flaws that put either safety or the power uprate plan at risk.

And by year’s end Vermonters had seen higher prices than ever for home heating fuel, and for gasoline.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney

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