High-level discussions between state and Entergy to address litigation, decommissioning of Vermont Yankee

Entergy Corp. representatives and state officials will meet on Monday in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s office to negotiate a number of issues related to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.

It’s the second time in several weeks that the governor, high ranking members of the governor’s staff, the Vermont Attorney General and officials from the Louisiana-based company will discuss a wide variety of issues concerning the plant in Vernon, which is slated to close a year from now.

When Entergy announced at the end of August that it would close the plant in 2014 because it was losing money on the facility, Shumlin said that he and Leo Denault, the chairman and CEO of Entergy, had agreed “to move beyond our past disputes and work cooperatively toward a timely shutdown.”

The talks are an unusual twist in a relationship between the state and Entergy that has been marked by long-running acrimony over the plant’s operation, taxes, relicensure and plans for decommissioning Vermont Yankee. Entergy sued the governor and the state Legislature in 2012 when the company was effectively denied a 20-year license extension to operate the plant. Ironically perhaps, Entergy won that court battle two weeks before it decided to close the plant.

In the last meeting, state and company officials began to explore areas of potential compromise; this time, sources say, negotiations will likely narrow in on specific agreements between the two sides and identification of areas of dispute.

The arc of that narrative has already been defined by litigation to an extent, though decommissioning appears to be an area of potential compromise.

Pending legal issues are still in play — over a generation tax imposed by the state, legal fees and a one year license extension. Bill Sorrell, the state attorney general, says the litigation will likely be discussed on Monday, as well as plans for decommissioning the 41-year-old plant. The negotiations will identify issues the state and Entergy can agree on, he said.

“We talked about a number of issues [last week] but there was general agreement that without undue delay we ought to sit down and engage on issues and see what we can agree to and no longer be fighting about,” Sorrell said.

“There’s no question that there are issues on which we’ll agree to disagree,” Sorrell said. “We’re not going to wrap it up in a bow on Monday, or a year from Monday but we are hopeful we can reach agreeement on a number of things and that would be progress.”

The shutdown of the plant includes the very complicated and expensive issue of decommissioning the plant and storing tons of highly radioactive waste now sitting in a water bath the size of a swimming pool. The governor has said he wants to decommission the plant quickly; Entergy has 60 years, under Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules, to store the waste and remove contaminated buildings and equipment. The cost to decommission the plant is estimated at $800 million to $1 billion. Entergy has less than $600 million set aside in a decommissioning fund.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, says the state wants the company to proceed with full decontamination and dismantlement of the plant as soon as reasonably feasible based on radioactivity levels.

He is optimistic that the state and Entergy can reach a compromise on a timeframe for decommissioning that is much shorter than the 60-year SAFESTOR option.

“I think we are looking forward to a productive session,” Recchia said. “We’re cautiously optimistic about coming to an agreement. We’re working as quickly as we can, and we’re all working in good faith.”

Entergy has indicated it wants to wait until the decommissioning fund builds up before it begins the expensive process of dismantling the plant.

Jim Sinclair, a spokesman for the company, said in an email, “We are working very hard to have a constructive dialogue with Vermont state officials on these important issues.”

The details of how the decommissioning will unfold are very much up in the air at this point. Entergy has two years to submit a decommissioning plan after the plant closes in 2014.

While the plant is running through next year, the management of spent fuel at the site is considered to be an operating cost. After that, Sinclair says, the cost of moving spent fuel to dry casks on site would come out of the decommissioning fund. Entergy would sue the Department of Entergy for costs incurred for management of the fuel.

It typically takes at least a decade to dismantle a nuclear power plant. Much of the spent fuel could be moved into safer, dry cask storage immediately, however.

Vermont Yankee has 3,879 fuel rod assemblies submerged in a spent fuel pool that was originally designed to hold about 350. Highly flammable spent fuel rods must be kept under water to prevent them from igniting, but once they are cooled they can be transferred into long-term cement “dry casks.” Vermont Yankee will need 58 casks in all. Right now, the facility has 13. Each cask costs about $1 million.

The fuel will likely remain on site for decades because the federal government, which had guaranteed nuclear operators it would create a national repository for the waste, failed to secure Yucca Mountain in Nevada. For the time being, there is no other option.

Anne Galloway

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