A long-awaited showdown between the state government and Vermont's lone nuclear plant is on, and neither side has given any indication it will back down.
The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant got the word Thursday that the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission had approved its request for a 20-year license extension that would allow it to operate until 2032. There was nothing unique or surprising about the announcement _ the NRC has never rejected a license extension.
What is unusual is that the plant is in a state where the governor wants it shut down, where the state Senate has voted 26-4 against the plant continuing to operate past March 2012 and where state law says the Legislature has to give the OK before regulators can give the plant a new state license.
The plant's owner, New Orleans-based Entergy Corp., has been running broadcast and newspaper ads touting the plant as a carbon-free source of electricity and warning of the dangers to the state's economy if Vermont loses its biggest source of power.
Entergy has been mostly mum about its strategy, but Chairman and CEO J. Wayne Leonard made clear in a conference call with investors last month that the company regards the decision about Vermont Yankee's future as a federal matter.
Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said Friday the company would not make Leonard available for a follow-up interview and would not discuss legal issues that might arise from the state's effort to shut it down.
A big question among lawmakers and others in Vermont is whether Entergy will file a lawsuit claiming that federal law pre-empts states from ordering the closure of a nuclear plant.
In his remarks on the investor call, Leonard stopped short of saying the company would do that but hinted broadly that it was ready for a fight.
"We want to be regarded as good partners with Vermont," Leonard said. "But at the same time, in some respects, we're being pushed into a bit of a corner here. And there's a point where there's a line in the sand and we've got to make a decision whether we're pushed any further or not."
He added, "We strongly believe that this is federal jurisdiction. We have choices that need to be made and we'll make them at the appropriate time."
When Entergy bought Vermont Yankee in 2002 from a group of New England utilities, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the sellers and with the state Department of Public Service. In it, the company promised not to seek federal pre-emption of a state ruling that blocked operation past 2012.
One possibility being talked about at the Statehouse this week is that the company could say it promised to comply with an order of the state Public Service Board. If the Legislature blocks the board from making an order, the company could say it has nothing with which to comply.
But the language of the 2002 agreement appears to block that path. In it, the company agrees to apply for a new state certificate of public good to operate the plant beyond 2012, and that will continue to operate only if that application is "made and granted."
Some wondered if the NRC might go to court with Entergy to block any move by the state that might be seen as threatening the agency's authority. But NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, repeatedly said the state has a role in determining the plant's future.
Jaczko said there are "a variety of permits and requirements for this facility to operate," adding that, "I would defer any of those actions (aside from the NRC's approval) to the state or other authorities."
Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, said she was pleased to hear that assurance from the NRC chairman.
"Vermont has made clear to Entergy that the state approval process is required and we expect that to be followed, and we're pleased that the NRC recognizes that as well," Miller said.
Richard Saudek, a former Vermont utility regulator who has advised lawmakers on issues related to Vermont Yankee, said: "I think everybody is expecting there will be litigation. But everybody's kind of hunkering in to see who makes the first move and what it might be."