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When Bernie Plays Hardball

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been on the warpath lately about the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Congress' lone socialist, officially known as an Independent, was so indignant early this summer when he learned that the NRC had taken a secret vote to ask the Justice Department to intervene in a suit between the plant's owner and the state of Vermont that he held up a presidential nomination for the reappointment of an NRC commissioner.

The nominee, William Ostendorff, is not only an incumbent NRC commissioner but has served as an attack submarine commander and the head of the math and science department at the U.S. Naval Academy. But Sanders, who sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—the committee that oversees the NRC—is no respecter of persons; he put a procedural hold on the appointment out of anger at the clandestine NRC vote.

Vermont Yankee's owner, Entergy of Louisiana, is suing Vermont in hopes of keeping the plant open for another 20 years after its scheduled shutdown date next year (the reactor has already been in operation for 40 years). The state Senate voted last year not to allow the Vermont Public Service Board to issue Entergy the necessary certificate, called a Certificate of Public Good, to continue to run the plant, and at the time Entergy bought the plant, it agreed to abide by the state's determination about whether the plant could remain in service.

Now, however, the company is taking the state to court, claiming that the Senate vote was based on safety concerns that fall exclusively within the jurisdiction of the NRC, and pointing out that the law allowing the Legislature to vote on the certificate was passed after it purchased the plant in 2002. The case reaches court next month.

From the beginning Sanders has insisted that the government should stay out of the ligitation. Early on, the NRC itself begged off, making public statements to the effect that though it had granted the company the license extension it sought, it would not face off against Vermont in federal district court (though it's not certain that the agency would not be drawn in if the case reaches appeal). Early in July, Ostendorff was confirmed after Sanders said he had received "assurances" that the Justice Department would stay out of the Entergy suit, though the Justice Department said then that it had not decided whether or not to intervene in the case.

Last week, however, Sanders had the last word when the DOJ officially confirmed that it would not intervene. After expressing his "appreciation" to the DOJ, the outspoken Senator added, "Vermont has a right to choose an energy future that emphasizes energy efficiency and sustainable energy and does not include an aging, problem-plagued nuclear power plant. The federal government has no role to play in that decision.

 

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