Dave Gram, The Associated Press
MONTPELIER — Massachusetts came to Vermont’s aid Monday in the legal fight over whether the northern neighbor can bar the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant from operating within its borders.
Despite raising the specter of the Japanese nuclear disaster that began after an earthquake and tsunami in March, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said its lawyers were not pushing the idea that Vermont Yankee should close, merely that states should have a say in such matters.
“The pre-emption questions presented in this proceeding, while specifically focused on Vermont laws, implicate the same type of constitutional analysis that may be applied if (Massachusetts’) laws regulating nuclear power plants are subjected to a pre-emption challenge,” lawyers in Coakley’s office wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro.
Massachusetts “has a critical interest in preserving its ability to regulate nuclear power generation within its borders as it sees fit, within constitutional limits,” the Massachusetts attorneys wrote.
Vermont Yankee’s owner, Entergy Corp., filed suit against Vermont in federal court in April, saying the state’s decision that the Vernon reactor should shut down after its initial 40-year license expires next March is pre-empted by federal laws governing nuclear power.
Entergy spokesman Larry Smith said Monday that the company would have no comment on the latest legal filing.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Vermont Yankee a 20-year license extension in March, but the state has denied it the parallel state certification. Vermont is the only state with a law saying both houses of its Legislature must issue approval before utility regulators rule on a new certificate of public good for a nuclear plant.
The Vermont Senate voted 26-4 last year against continued operation; the House hasn’t voted.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. If the plant is to continue operating past next March 21, it needs to place a multimillion-dollar order this summer for a new batch of nuclear fuel that would be placed into the reactor during an shutdown scheduled for the fall. As part of the lawsuit it filed in April, Entergy asked for a preliminary injunction blocking the state from shutting it down. That request is pending.
In the brief filed Monday, Coakley’s office argued that Massachusetts has a keen interest in Vermont Yankee’s future. The 39-year-old reactor is located in Vermont’s southeast corner in Vernon, less than five miles from the Massachusetts state line and on the west bank of the Connecticut River, which flows through Massachusetts. Massachusetts gets electricity from Vermont Yankee via the New England power grid, and several towns in northwestern Massachusetts’ Franklin County are within Vermont Yankee’s emergency evacuation zone.
In the event of an accident, “Massachusetts communities could face contamination of soil, water, and agriculture resources that would force displacement of residents and businesses, conceivably devastating state or local economies for years into the commonwealth’s future,” the state’s lawyers wrote.