Town Meeting as the Nuclear Option: How Vermont’s Values Can Inform the Nuclear Waste Policy Impasse

Town Meeting as the Nuclear Option: How Vermont’s Values Can Inform the Nuclear Waste Policy Impasse

Emily Davis

Remnant pieces of a former nuclear power plant linger along the Connecticut River in the small town of Vernon, Vermont.[1] Industrial machinery dismantles the once-controversial Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant that produced about one-third of the state’s electricity for 40 years.[2] Railroad tracks from the plant meander around dairy farms and maple trees,[3] and shipments containing old reactor parts, office building interiors, and massive turbines roll south to an industrial disposal facility in west Texas.[4] Since its beginning in 2016, the decommissioning process is largely going as planned.[5] However, an important detail remains: Where does the radioactive spent nuclear fuel go?

Spent nuclear fuel—the leftover fuel from nuclear power reactors after producing electricity—has no permanent home in the country.[6] But this is not for a lack of trying. Enacted in 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act obligated the federal government to locate a storage site for nuclear waste.[7] But for many decades, the federal government never identified a disposal site.[8] Many factors contributed to this failure, but one major cause stands out: from the very beginning, the American public was never given the opportunity to meaningfully participate in shaping nuclear waste policy.[9]

After nearly 70 years without an effective waste disposal solution, at least 86,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel temporarily reside at 75 separate sites in 33 states.[10] To resolve this problem, the Department of Energy announced that it will pursue a “consent-based siting process” to identify nuclear waste storage sites on December 1, 2021.[11] With this new effort, the Department will ask potential host communities to step forward and work with the federal government to site nuclear waste facilities. But given decades of brooding mistrust and federal mismanagement, this is an audacious prospect. How can the federal government build public trust and develop a truly consent-based process?

This is where Vermont can inform the solution. Vermont has a tradition of self-governance called Town Meeting Day, where citizens gather annually to conduct the official business of the town and consider other important issues.[12] It embodies the fundamental principles of democratic process necessary to achieve true informed consent from a host community. This Note demonstrates how Vermont’s beloved political process has an important application beyond the town halls and granges of the Green Mountain State.

To resolve the nuclear waste policy impasse, Congress should amend existing law and enact a consent-based siting process that embodies fundamental principles of democracy, as demonstrated by Vermont’s Town Meeting Day. Part I provides a background of the issue and history of nuclear waste management. It explains how public participation remained an afterthought in nuclear waste policy for decades, thereby losing trust and confidence. Part II explains how those major laws lead to the current ad-hoc system of nuclear waste management and describes the most recent developments towards a consent-based siting process. Part III connects all that material to the principles of consent as understood in democratic theory and demonstrates how Vermont’s traditional self-governance can inform Congressional action. It proposes statutory language that Congress should enact that reimagines the nation’s nuclear waste siting process.

[1] See, e.g., Richard Watts, Public Meltdown: The Story of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant 2 (White River Press 2012).

[2] Id.

[3] See generally Town of Vernon, Vt., Vernon, Vt. Town Plan 37 (Nov. 07, 2018) (“Vernon owes much of its present character to the continued use of large land areas for agricultural production associated with dairy. . . After forestland, the major land use in the town of Vernon is agriculture.”).

[4] See e.g., Mike Fahrer, Vermont Yankee Cleanup Partner Stops Work on Nuclear Dump, VT Digger (Apr. 26, 2017) https://vtdigger.org/2017/04/26/vermont-yankee-cleanup-partner-stops-work-nuclear-dump/.

[5] Decommissioning Facts, Northstar, https://vydecommissioning.com/decommissioning-facts/ (last visited Feb. 14, 2022).

[6] Recommendations From the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future For A Consent-Based Approach to Siting Nuclear Waste Storage and Management Facilities: Hearing Before the S. Comm. On Env’t. and Pub. Works, 112th Cong. 2 (2012) (statement of Gen. Brent Scrowcroft).

[7] U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-21-603, Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel: Congressional Action Needed to Break Impasse and Develop a Permanent Disposal Solution 11 (Sept. 2021) [hereinafter GAO Report].

[8] Id.

[9] Stanford Univ., Ctr. for Int’l Sec. and Coop., Reset of America’s Nuclear Waste Mgmt. Strategy and Pol’y 13 (Oct. 15, 2018).

[10] GAO Report, supra note 7, at 1.

[11] Biden Seeks Willing Hosts for Nuclear Waste Storage Sites, Reuters (Nov. 30, 2021) https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/biden-renews-hunt-willing-hosts-nuclear-waste-storage-sites-2021-11-30/.

[12] 17 V.S.A § 2640(a).

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