Vermont Yankee nuke plant keeps pushing for legislature to grant license extension

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Vermont nuke plant still lobbying for new license

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Shot down once, the owners of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant continue pushing for a second vote by state lawmakers for a license extension allowing it to stay open past 2012.

But they’ve been less active than expected in donating to legislative candidates who might help them this year. Instead, they are pouring money into TV, radio and newspaper advertising, lobbying lawmakers and civic groups and supporting plant workers who stand to lose their jobs if it closes.

Vermont is the only state that has given itself the power to turn thumbs down on a re-licensing. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission typically has that authority.

Campaign finance records show the political action committee of plant owner Entergy Corp. has donated less than $10,000 to candidates and committees since 2009, a sharp drop from $107,000 given in the two previous years.

A complete accounting is all but impossible, though: Vermont’s campaign finance laws don’t require political donors to identify their occupations, employers or political interests, so it’s hard to identify all the money being donated to campaigns by the nuclear plant’s employees, contractors or executives.

Meanwhile, its owners are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an “I Am Vermont Yankee” advertising campaign that showcases plant workers talking about their jobs and the importance of the plant to Vermont’s economy.

And lobbyists for New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. have been quietly pressing lawmakers in hopes of a vote that would reverse a state Senate vote last February to block the plant from operating past 2012.

Vermont has for years had a love-hate relationship with the plant officially known as Vermont Yankee Nuclear Generating Station, with ratepayers prizing it for cut-rate electricity and environmental advocates denouncing it as a potential danger.

But the 2007 collapse of a cooling tower and revelations that its representatives misled state officials about leaks of radioactive tritium and strontium-90 have fueled pushes to shut it down when its license expires — or sooner.

Located in Vernon, along the banks of the Connecticut River, Vermont Yankee opened in 1972. It produces 650 megawatts of power per hour, half of which stays in Vermont, the rest going to other New England states.

Its battle for continued operation comes as nuclear power is enjoying renewed cache — in some places — as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuel power. Last year, President Barack Obama called for construction of a new generation of nuclear plants, backed by billions in federal loan guarantees.

But Vermont Yankee has been snakebit in its bid for the 20-year extension.

After the state Senate voted 26-4 against relicensing eight months ago, some expected Entergy Corp. to pour money into Vermont’s current election campaigns, hoping to help elect sympathetic candidates.

They apparently aren’t doing so.

To date, the donations from Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp.’s PAC have been small, by Vermont standards.

In 2009-2010, Entergy Corp. Political Action Committee — a federal PAC — has given at least:

— $1,000 to Friends of Chittenden County Republican Legislators.

— $2,000 to Vermont House Republican PAC.

— $2,000 to Vermont Republican Party.

— $2,000 to Patrick Leahy for U.S. Senator committee.

“It would’ve been a very, very risky strategy for them, because they had already spent a good deal of money leading up to the vote last year, on advertising and so forth, that went very poorly for them,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which opposes relicensing.

“I think if people believed, after that experience, that they were then coming in and trying to buy influence over candidates running for office, it would’ve been one more black mark against this company, it seemed to me,” Burns said.

The committee was more active in the two years prior. Some expected more activity this year, because the relicensing issue is so big for Entergy.

Vermont Yankee’s lobbyists have approached lawmakers in recent weeks, offering campaign contributions and urging them to take a second look, according to state Sen. John Campbell.

“They are actively attempting to find either candidates or people who are sitting who don’t have serious opponents and are actively seeking their support,” said Campbell, D-Windsor, who’s stridently opposed to a new vote. “There’s no question about that.”

Lawmakers who accept donations don’t always side with Vermont Yankee. Four senators who voted against re-licensing had received Entergy contributions.

“The fact that Vermont doesn’t require donor employer and occupation information in campaign finance reports makes it very difficult and time-consuming for reporters and public interest groups to do the research to make their case,” said Rachel Hanish, chairwoman of the Vermont chapter of Common Cause, a national group dedicated to government transparency.

For their part, plant officials say they don’t use political donations to affect legislation.

“PAC contributions are made to help elect candidates who share the same (similar) ideology as the company on issues important to Entergy and the energy industry,” said spokesman Larry Smith. “We don’t make contributions as an attempt to influence votes on legislation or policy.”

Meanwhile, they are spending freely on the “I Am Vermont Yankee” campaign, blanketing Vermont TV stations with commercials showing plant employees talking about their jobs there, at a cost well into six figures. Entergy has bought $120,295 worth of air time this year at CBS affiliate WCAX-TV of Burlington, one of four stations.

“Our game plan has not changed,” said Smith, the plant’s spokesman. “To that extent, we continue to meet with service groups, organizations, legislators, would-be legislative candidates, anyone who is asking us for information on Vermont Yankee on anything — safety, reliability, being part of Vermont’s energy future, on tritium.”

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