Three-Day Vermont Yankee Trial Ends

09/15/11 8:50AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) Lawyers for Vermont's only nuclear plant and attorneys for Vermont made their final oral arguments Wednesday, ending a three-day trial in Federal Court in Brattleboro.

As VPR's Susan Keese reports, the case is about states' rights to regulate nuclear power.

(Keese) Entergy Nuclear, the owner of Vermont Yankee, is suing Vermont because the state  legislature denied the plant a 20-year extension. The plant's current license expires this spring.

Entergy's legal team has tried to demonstrate that safety and health concerns were the real motive behind the state's vote not to give the plant another 20 years.

By law nuclear safety and health can only be addressed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The state is claiming it had plenty of legitimate concerns that were not related to safety.

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell says concerns were made clear in testimony from a former Entergy employee hired to help the company regain the public's trust.

(Sorrell) "And that was the legislators were as mad as can be, that they didn't trust the management of the plant, that they were concerned that the Enexus deal was a shell game to leave Vermont rate payers and tax payers holding the bag in the event of decommissioning."

(Keese) Enexus was a proposed spinoff company to which Entergy briefly planned to pass on decommissioning responsibilities.

In her closing arguments, Entergy's lead lawyer set out to prove that the state's concerns are merely a disguise for  worries about nuclear safety.

Her summation included hours of taped  comments and talk between lawmakers and others in committee rooms and hearings.

Lawmakers were heard privately voicing safety concerns -- or sharing advice on what words to use to avoid the appearance of treading on federally pre-empted territory.

(Edwards) "And what their claim is we only looked at the safety side and it's simply not true."

Brattleboro Representative Sara Edwards says everybody cares about safety. But she says there's a fair amount of overlap - for example between reliability and safety.

(Edwards) "So we got guidance on that."

(Keese) For Brad Fernald the issues are less murky. Fernald is president of the pro-nuclear Vermont Energy Partnership.

Fernald believes, along with Entergy, that Vermont legislators were galvanized by fear of radiation when they voted not to relicense Vermont Yankee.

(Fernald) " There was no doubt in my mind that this was all driven by emotion politics based on the tritium, and the tritium was a safety issue in everybody's mind."

(Keese) In their final arguments lawyers for the state cited a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that it isn't possible or advisable to try to discern the hidden motives behind it.

But lawyers for Entergy say that much of the state's legislation involving the plant should be stricken down because the laws pre-empt federal jurisdiction.

U.S. District Judge J. Garven Murtha, who heard the case without a jury, is expected to make his decision this fall.

But the case is widely expected to be appealed, and could become a test of state's rights versus federal pre-emption.

For VPR News, I'm Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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