The owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant — a subsidiary of New Orleans-based Entergy Corporation — sued Vermont yesterday in federal court, to prevent the state from forcing the 39-year-old power plant to cease operation next March.
Whoever prevails, the precedent could affect the relicensing process for aging reactors nationwide, legal experts agree. There are 104 nuclear reactors, now operating in 31 states across the country, that collectively provide about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. As costs for new construction of a nuclear power plant skyrocket, Entergy is only one of a long line of utilities seeking federal permits to extend — by 20 years — the 40-year licenses held by more than three-quarters of existing reactors.
"This will likely be a landmark case, establishing a dividing line between federal government and states over nuclear issues," says Boris Mamlyuk, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern University College of Law, who has written about the case. "It also holds potential — if the ruling goes for Vermont — to help revive the nuclear safety debate in the US on a major scale."
At the same time, the circumstances of the case are unique. Vermont already negotiated an agreement with the nuclear plant's owner that gives the state relicensing authority.
The case, he and others note, is heightened by public concern over the Fukushima accident and the safety of 28 existing plants in the US with the same design as the Japanese plant — including the Vermont Yankee plant. Some question whether federal oversight is adequate, since the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted a new federal license to the plant — over Vermont's protests — even as the Fukushima crisis was unfolding.