Less than week after urging lawmakers to take a vote this session and allow utility regulators to decide Vermont Yankee's future, Gov. Jim Douglas said Wednesday afternoon he is pulling back his full-throttled support for the embattled power plant.
On its face, it's because Douglas says Entergy has violated the confidence and trust of Vermonters.
"I have lost trust in the current management team and I have been disappointed that changes have not already been made," said Douglas.
The announcement came on the heels of a rough hearing before the Vermont Public Service Board Wednesday morning, and increasing calls from legislative leaders asking the Douglas administration to withdraw its support for Entergy's proposal to spin off Vermont Yankee's ownership to a new, limited liability company, Enexus.
On Wednesday, the Agency of Natural Resources also revealed it is investigating Entergy's discharges into the groundwater, and possible illegal discharges into the Connecticut River, thanks to recent tritium leaks.
As well, Attorney General Bill Sorrell also confirmed he is investigating whether Entergy officials lied under oath before the PSB.
A rough day at the office for sure. But, Douglas didn't fully back away completely from his support for Entergy. Throughout thick and thin — from cooling water tower collapses to missing fuel rods — Douglas and his Department of Public Service have still urged for an extension of Vermont Yankee's operating license.
"When we can again say with resolute clarity that we can depend on the management of the plant and ensure public health and safety, only then can we move forward with the consideration of the plant’s long-term future," said Douglas.
Entergy officials were disappointed by the governor's statement.
Douglas said he'll have his Department of Public Service to seek a delay in a final ruling regarding the Enexus deal until state and federal investigations are complete. He also called for a change in Entergy's management team in Vermont.
Backtracking from just a week ago, Douglas said he will no longer ask lawmakers to vote this session on whether to send VY's relicensing proposal to the Vermont Public Service Board.
"With so many ongoing investigations, unanswered questions, and my own unease with previous information we have received from Entergy management, I can no longer ask legislators to vote this year on whether the Public Service Board should be allowed to decide the case for relicensing. Therefore, I am calling for a time-out," said Douglas.
Entergy officials said they were disappointed, naturally, in the governor's announcement, largely because they are cooperating with multiple investigations and are "aggressively" trying to find the source of the tritium leak at the plant. One of those investigations is being conducted by an outside law firm, hired by Entergy, to determine how and why plant officials misled state regulators about underground pipes that carry radionuclides.
"We remain committed to cooperate in every way possible with the state’s own inquiries. We remain convinced that it is in the best interest of Vermonters and the state’s economic and energy future that this plant keep operating and have its license renewed," said Entergy Vermont Yankee spokesman Rob Williams.
Williams said he could not say if the governor's action will affect Entergy's spin-off transaction.
"As the reviews proceed, it is important for the public to understand that elevated tritium levels found in a monitoring well at Vermont Yankee present no risk to public health or safety. In the meantime, the plant continues to operate safely and efficiently," said Williams.
Despite his misgivings, Douglas said he still believes lawmakers need to let state regulators have the final say in Vermont Yankee's relicensure.
"I continue to believe that these determinations must be left to the regulators at the state and federal levels. Decisions that impact so many Vermonters must be based on the best scientific information and evaluated objectively outside of the political fray," said Douglas.
But, perhaps an equally important reason for changing his tune on VY was the person standing next to Douglas at his hastily-called news conference — Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, the pol Douglas hopes will succeed him as governor. Support for VY has become as radioactive politically as it has physically in recent weeks.
As has been the case at recent announcements, the governor brought Dubie in tow and asked him to say a few words.
Today, Dubie told reporters and a roomful of onlookers that he is most concerned about the safety of the workers at the plant along with area residents. Entergy has put their safety, and 650 jobs, on the line by their corporate misdeeds.
"I am extremely disappointed that VY management has compromised those jobs through repeated breaches of faith with the State of Vermont and its people," said Dubie. "We need a time out before we address any questions about how and if to move forward with Vermont Yankee."
Legislative leaders said they were pleased that the governor moved a step closer in their direction when it comes to Vermont Yankee. But, it's not quite far enough.
“We appreciate that the governor has come to share our concerns with the recent revelations that Entergy misled Vermonters and that radioactive material is leaking from the plant,” said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) in a statement. Shumlin is one of five Democrats running for governor. “We would like to reiterate our request that the Department of Public Service not just postpone their support for the proposed Enexus spin off but that they oppose it."
Shumlin added that having a few "heads roll" per the governor's request "is not enough to restore Vermonter’s trust in the out-of-state corporation.”
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) said the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Health must find the source of the tritium leak as soon as possible.
“The crisis at hand remains our top priority,” said Smith. "We remain committed to ensuring that there is a transparent process in place so Vermonters receive accurate and trustworthy information and we applaud the governor for joining us in getting to the bottom of this crisis as quickly as possible.”
The Senate Finance Committee will be taking testimony on Entergy’s power purchase proposal beginning next week and the legislature looks forward to the Public Oversight’s Panel’s report on the reliability
of the plant, due February 16.
In the end, however, Douglas has consistently proven to be one of Entergy's staunchest allies and supporters — both when they sought to produce 20 percent more power, and during proceedings dealing with their proposed spin-off and relicensure.