ONTPELIER – For years there have been many lawmakers, lobbyists and state officials at the Statehouse who thought Arnie and Maggie Gundersen were alarmist and rabid anti-nuclear kooks. But it turns out that this husband-and-wife team from Burlington have been right about many things Vermont Yankee – including this latest scandal surrounding tritium leaks and plant owner Entergy giving false info to the state. Maggie Gundersen told the Senate Natural Resources Committee last week that, back in 2009, a lawmaker pulled her and Arnie aside and told them to lay off on Entergy, that they are "losing credibility" when they question the company. "We stuck to our analysis," Maggie Gundersen said. Arnie Gundersen was a controversial choice as a member of the Vermont Yankee Public Oversight Panel and pro-nuclear groups quickly said he was biased and his participation would discredit the process. Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin stuck by his pick, saying Gundersen brought years of nuclear experience to the team. Gundersen seemed to be the only one asking Entergy and state officials about these underground radioactive pipes that may be now leaking tritium. When everyone told him they didn't exist, he persisted and asked the question again and again. Same result. Turns out he was right the whole time. There was a dramatic shift in the couple's recent appearances before legislative committees. Even pro-nuclear Republicans now look at the couple knowing they know what they are talking about. Maggie Gundersen said last week that there is more at stake than just the state of the environment in Vernon, where the Vermont Yankee plant is located. The whole state's reputation is threatened, she said. "Vermont is a brand that symbolizes purity," she said. "Vermont's brand is now being tarnished." Shumlin vs. Dunne Vermont Yankee has long been seen as an issue tucked into the back pocket of Shumlin, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate from Putney. He lives in the same county as the power plant and has been a powerful voice of concern about its operation. Since the tritium leak last month, Shumlin has headlined numerous press conferences about the plant – always accompanied by House Speaker Shap Smith. Like Gundersen, he looks like the guy who may have been right all along about the plant. Now it seems Matt Dunne, the former state senator who is also running for the Democratic nomination for governor, is challenging Shumlin on his main issue. Dunne, a resident of Windsor County, threw a press conference last Thursday in Brattleboro – practically Shumlin's backyard – and called for Vermont Yankee to be shut down immediately until the leak is found. That's a stronger position than Shumlin has taken to date. He also suggested that the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to sue Entergy over the radioactive leaks. "Inaction at this time is unacceptable and irresponsible," Dunne said. "Irresponsible to rate payers, irresponsible to Vermonters, irresponsible to the workers who do not know their future, and irresponsible to our neighbors who will be damaged by a tritium contaminated Connecticut River. The time for executive action is now." Have a heart Sen. Dick Sears may have dodged a bullet last week when he decided not to hold hearings this year on a bill that would stiffen criminal penalties for killing an unborn fetus. Having that debate would also open up the thorny issue of abortion at the Statehouse, a debate that could divide lawmakers and Vermonters. Sears, a Democrat who spent weeks on a gay marriage bill last year, said without some consensus on the issue, the bill is too divisive. The Vermont Right to Life Committee and Rev. Craig Bensen disagree. The organizers behind the Web site www.BenningtonBabies.com, Bensen urged his supporters last week to send Sears some Valentine's Day cards saying, "Have a heart, have a hearing." Capitol Beat is a weekly column by the Vermont Press Bureau, the Statehouse office of the Times Argus and the Rutland Herald.

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