Response to Silverstein op-ed in VT Digger: VY and VT Democracy

Gerry Silverstein is wrong in any number of ways. Here are just a few:

1) Silverstein begins his piece by suggesting that the State of Vermont is run like a town meeting: that is, that State government is a democracy. It isn’t, and was never intended to be. Vermont has a representative government, just like the United States as a whole. It is not a direct democracy. While, of course, citizens enjoy free speech rights, our actual governance is through our regularly elected representatives, not through the public as a whole.

Later in his piece, Mr. Silverstein writes: “Politicians, scientists, regulators, lawyers, advocacy groups and corporate leaders should contribute knowledge and perspectives but, ultimately, it is up to citizens in a democracy to make decisions that affect their everyday lives.” Actually, it is up to citizens’ representatives, NOT to citizens, to make these decisions.

The Vermont Yankee issue is an excellent example of why that SHOULD continue to be the case.

The decision whether to continue operations at Vermont Yankee is incredibly complex, and goes well beyond the safety issues to which Mr. Silverstein wants to reduce it. In fact, the dual regulatory system which Congress has established for nuclear power requires State officials to consider safety ONLY when intervening (formally or otherwise) at the federal level (something which they have every right to do). The NRC, not the Vermont legislature, is charged with making safety decisions. Despite Judge Murtha’s decision to the contrary, legislators were well aware of this fact and did their level best NOT to consider safety issues when reaching their decision. Mr. Silverstein seems unaware of this distinction, as are many of those who comment on both sides of this issue.

Beyond safety, a wide variety of other complex questions made this decision one which requires careful deliberation and study. Surely, the most important, which was raised repeatedly by Entergy and its supporters, was rate impact. I have spent a good chunk of my time in the last four years refuting charges from VY supporters that without VY, retail electric rates would double (or worse). This fantasy was wrong from the beginning. It turns out, that rates under Entergy’s final offer to Vermont utilities are HIGHER than those which will result from replacement contracts.

Indeed, the deciding blow against the plant in the legislature came not from the tritium leaks (which certainly sealed the deal, so to speak), but when the companies announced in late 2009 that utility negotiations had failed to reach agreement on post 2012 contracts and Entergy revealed its final offer. How do I know this? Because I counted votes AFTER this announcement and BEFORE the tritium leaks were announced (in late December 2009).

Two additional concerns (and a myriad of others) were also raised: the pending Enexus deal, which would have spun VY off into the hands of an entity far weaker than Entergy, and the mounting uncertainties about who would end up paying for decommissioning. Senator Illuzzi expressed these concerns in a late November 2009 op-ed piece, but he was not alone in bring them to the fore. These issues were raised repeatedly in my conversations with legislators at the time.

These and other concerns are not simple or straightforward. Legislative and PSB testimony on these and other points runs into the thousands of pages. Few legislators are likely to have read all of this, but far fewer citizens are even aware of it, since Vermont’s press basically covered little to none of it.

Legislators DID get to hear direct testimony in their committees from those most involved before they reached their decisions. Many traveled to Vernon to tour the plant and speak to Entergy representatives, and most were kind enough to take the time to speak to me and other advocates as well. All were then able to share any and all of this information with their colleagues as well. That’s how legislative bodies work, and why issues like these are better decided by them than by direct citizen votes (referendum). It’s also why random remarks, taken out of context and without attribution, do not contribute to a viable understanding of what legislators may have been thinking at the time.

Following the Senate’s vote, however, citizens DID get the chance to weigh in on this issue, and they spoke loudly and clearly. In the last election, Peter Shumlin chose to make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign and was elected governor against an opponent who supported continued operations. Of the senators who ran for re-election following the 2010 vote, all were re-elected. That pretty strongly indicates that these senators were NOT out of touch with their constituents. Indeed, that’s how the people of Vermont express their will in our system.

2) Mr. Silverstein then goes on to cite polling data specifically stating this: “In November 2007, the Vermont Department of Public Service commissioned an independent poll (carried out by the University of Texas at Austin) to assess Vermonters opinions on energy policy. After a weekend of deliberation and discussion a tiny majority (50 percent to 48 percent) of citizens felt that Vermont should buy power from Vermont Yankee.”

I’m looking at a document called “Vermont’s Energy Future: Regional Workshops: Final Report,” dated November 2007, and written by Raab Associates (on page 2, the report notes collaboration with the University of Texas at Austin). On page 16, the report asked 546 participants whether they agreed or disagreed (strongly or somewhat) with the following statement: “Vermont should continue to purchase electricity from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.” 53% DISAGREED. Another 12% STRONGLY DISAGREED. In other words, 65% of Vermonters were AGAINST continued operations. [The report itself somehow adds these 2 figures and says “almost two-thirds (63%),” which might be an arithmetic error or might suggest the 2 figure quoted are both rounded up enough to make up the difference.]

Later participants were asked a more coerced question with a far more debatable premise, to which fewer responded at all. Specifically: “Vermont Yankee provides base load power, meaning power is usually available 24/7. If you learned that discontinuing power from V.Y. would require another base load source of power, and that only natural gas, coal, out-of-state nuclear power, or oil were available to replace this power, would you … continue with VY?” 54% of this smaller number then responded that they would continue.

The report is (or was) available on the DPS website. An executive summary, prepared in January 2008 by Steven Wark, then director of Consumer Affairs and Public Information at DPS, confirms the figures I’ve just shown on page 5 (repeating the same math error). It too is (or was) available on the DPS website.

None of these results corresponds to Mr. Silvertstein’s characterization, however.

3) Mr. Silverstein also conveniently ignores the dozens (or even hundreds) of towns which voted at Town Meeting against continued operations prior to the Senate vote. Additionally, he ignores another normal, basic mechanism of our political system: namely direct contact with legislators. I spoke to over 170 of the 180 legislators before the Senate vote, and many told me that had heard a great deal on this from their constituents.

There’s much more here to disagree with, including Mr. Silverstein’s simplistic and often incorrect characterizations of various power sources, of the court case, etc. But in these comments, I’ve tried to stick to the core issues Mr. Silverstein raises.

Refocusing on clean energy and personal growth!in the Green Mountain State and beyond