Residents seek assurance from feds on Vermont Yankee decommissioning

NRC Vermont Yankee

Officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hear testimony during a hearing on the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Brattleboro on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. Left to right: Douglas Broaddus, Andrew Persinko, Bruce Watson, and Joe Lynch of Entergy.

BRATTLEBORO — Fear of the unknown topped the minds of residents gathered in Brattleboro on Thursday night for a hearing on the decommissioning of the idle Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a billion-plus dollar process that may take decades to complete while spent nuclear fuel sits in dry cask storage on the west shore of the Connecticut River.

“We do have reason to have concern here,” Betsy Williams, 58, of Westminster West, told a panel of officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “When you tell me the casks will be adequate, that does not give me great assurance. I’m looking for a hell of a lot more than adequate.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is taking comments on a proposed decommissioning plan by Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, a subsidiary of the Louisiana-based Entergy Corp. Many residents in the tri-state region surrounding the plant were highly critical of the company’s commitment to tear down the site, and the federal regulator’s role to oversee the process.

Residents and state officials are worried that federal regulations are inadequate to hold the plant owner accountable if there is insufficient money to decommission the facility. The company is using a special decommissioning trust fund — currently totaling $650 million — to pay for a process that is estimated to cost $1.2 billion.

Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia told federal regulators that they are “stewards” of the fund. Vermont Yankee is the second merchant plant in the nation to decommission; all others were owned by utilities and backed by ratepayer funds. Vermont Yankee was owned by a regulated utility prior to Entergy’s purchase the plant in 2002.

“I do think you need to pay better attention to the fact that we have switched environments here from a regulated utility structure to one where we have merchant facilities that need attention,” Recchia told the NRC.

It’s possible that the cost to decommission the plant could rise further, state officials say. Entergy’s decommissioning plan, known as the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, or PSDAR, does not include sufficient details on the radiological contamination at the site, which could create unanticipated expenses, officials say.

“Experience at other nuclear power plants indicates that when you start to take the buildings apart, when you start to unearth the tunnels and the piping, you find things,” said Bill Irwin, chief of Vermont’s radiological health program. “Whenever things are unexpected, they usually involve unexpected costs. Were not sure those costs are accounted for in the cost estimates.”

Arnie Gundersen

Arnie Gundersen, a Burlington-based nuclear engineer, speaks during the hearing. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Many residents living near the Vernon plant called on Entergy to decommission it as soon as possible. Doing so could even save the company money, according to Arnie Gundersen, a Burlington-based nuclear engineer.

Gundersen said models used by the NRC to calculate necessary decommissioning funds are “simplistic and not based in science.”

Gundersen and his team at the nuclear safety think tank Fairewinds Associates have spent the past year developing a spreadsheet that compares the growth of the fund and planned expenses.

He said decommissioning could begin as soon as 2026 and the plant could be torn down by 2032 if the company does not use money from the decommissioning trust fund to pay for spent fuel management or other expenses.

The company estimates decommissioning will begin by 2052 or sooner. The company plans to use $225 million from the decommission trust fund to pay for part of the cost of spent fuel management, as well as a $143 million load to transfer the fuel from a cooling pool to dry casks. Withdrawals from the fund for this purpose require federal permission.

Gundersen said the company should begin decommissioning parts of the plant as soon as possible to avoid greater costs. The state measured safe levels of the radioactive contaminant strontium-90 at a monitoring well near the plant, which Gundersen said should be cleaned up as soon as possible to avoid escalating costs.

“We can remove the AOG building now and save money in the decommissioning fund,” he said. “Most of the horses are still under the AOG building. … We have a chance to nip it in the bud.”

Gundersen and other want the fund to be used for safety measures, such keeping in place its current emergency planning zone and transferring spent fuel from the cooling pool into casks only when school is not in session.

“The movement of that fuel is a very big deal. There are two elementary schools basically a stone’s throw from the reactor. This is a site specific issue,” said Deb Katz, the executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, a group involved in the closing of other nuclear power plants in the region.

Deb Katz Citizen Awareness Network

Deb Katz, the executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, speaks during a hearing on the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Tensions ran high during the nearly five-hour meeting Thursday night. Many of the residents jeered at those that commended Entergy’s operation of the plant, while several others interrupted responses by NRC officials. One resident even personally insulted an NRC official for not remembering they already signed into the hearing despite having a conversation.

Much of the angst grew from distrust that the company would fulfill its obligation to decommission the plant or just “walk away” from the plant. Some residents questions whether there are rules in place to ensure such a situation cannot happen.

“We’re not going to just let them walk away. Even if it involved working with the Department of Justice to go after the parent company,” said NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan. “Even if the company dissolves, they still have assets. Entergy owns a transmission company … and they own other nuclear power plants other than this.”

NRC officials are considering new rules for how to deal with decommission merchant power plant, but did not detail what changes can be expected.

“That is a development that when the nuclear industry took off in this country, was not something that was really considered. So that is something that we are going to look at,” Sheehan said.

What happens after the plant is decommissioned is yet to be determined. Entergy has said it is committed to restoring the site to “unrestricted use” as defined by federal regulations. The state, however, is asking the company to remove radiological contamination more than three feet below grade.

Negotiations about the conditions of the site post-decommissioning are underway, officials say.

“The best way to get what we believe is appropriate is to work with Entergy to come up with agreements that give us what we’re looking for,” Irwin said.

John Herrick

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  • Moshe Braner

    The time to get Entergy to put the needed monies into the fund was years ago. Now, with only half as much in the fund as needed, and no more coming in, full decommissioning will NEVER happen. Even if they wait decades, the purchasing power of the fund will not increase on its own. Those days are over.

    • This (decommissioning fund) is something that Gov. Shumlin and the legislature should have considered before pushing to close VY.

      Of course thinking ahead is incompatible with a “Ready, Fire, Aim” management style as we have repeatedly learned over the past four years.

      • bob zeliff

        Peter

        You need to remember that Entergy WON the debate got their extension. Shumlin lost!

        The Entergy found that the Vernon plant could NOT produce electricity at a competitive price….so Entergy decided to close the plant.

        Now, they trying to wriggle away from paying the cost of decommissioning….leaving the cost to Vermont tax payers.

        Entergy has hood winked all those Vermonters who supported them…

        • John Greensham

          “Now, they trying to wriggle away from paying the cost of decommissioning….leaving the cost to Vermont tax payers.”

          This statement is completely without merit and you provide no support for it. Why should anyone believe you?

          • walter moses

            Second the motion.

      • John Greenberg

        Peter:

        “This (decommissioning fund) is something that Gov. Shumlin and the legislature should have considered before pushing to close VY.”

        As usual, you’re misinformed and the facts do not support your argument.

        First, the legislature DID pass a bill attempting to get more money put into the decommissioning fund, and Governor Douglas vetoed it. I was frankly not very involved in this issue at that time, so I don’t remember much about what was in the bill. My recollection is that Shumlin had returned to the legislature at the time, though I could be mistaken in that.

        Second, one of the many lawsuits Entergy brought against Vermont claimed that VY’s activities are WHOLY regulated by the federal government and therefore ANY regulation by State government is preempted. It’s virtually certain that any successful attempt by Vermont to regulate decommissioning or require additional funds would have been met with yet another lawsuit.

        Most of the cost of decommissioning comes from removing enough of the radioactive substances other than spent fuel from the site that the NRC would retire the operating license and declare the site acceptable for public use. Spent fuel CANNOT be removed from the site, but must meet NRC standards for safe storage until it can be removed.

        All of this is regulated by the NRC, and accordingly is NOT open to state regulation of any kind. (The State can, and if memory serves me did, intervene in NRC proceedings in these matters, but it is preempted from regulating on its own behalf).

        Had the state made any attempt to compel Entergy to add money to the decommissioning fund without Entergy’s approval as you suggest, it would have certainly met with an Energy lawsuit. And it’s virtually impossible to imagine what leverage the State would ever have had to obtain Entergy’s approval.

        Furthermore, unlike the preemption issues which DID get litigated in court, THIS issue is actually pretty clear. More specifically, I discussed these issues with a number of lawyers who work in this specific area of the law looking for ways that the State COULD intervene, but was unable to find any that I found even slightly convincing.

        I did suggest to the legislature that it compel Entergy to commit funds for the (much smaller) non-radiological portion of site restoration to which Entergy had committed itself in the 2002 MOU with the previous owners and the State, precisely because that’s an area which pretty clearly is NOT subject to federal preemption. The organized anti-VY groups opposed my efforts and no one in the legislature championed my views, so my proposal went nowhere in the legislature.

        Subsequently, however, in 2013, the Shumlin MOU which allowed Entergy to obtain a CPG to finish its last year of operations did contain a provision for setting aside $25 million (if memory serves me) in a special fund for just this purpose. Estimates of the total which will eventually be needed for this purpose are between $50 million (Entergy) and $125 million (DPS witnesses), a VERY small portion of the total needed for decommissioning.

        Unlike you, legislators, including both senator and governor Shumlin, were well aware of federal preemption issues. In addition, the 2002 MOU already allowed Entergy to opt for SAFSTOR.

        To some degree, this whole area is a victim of the transition from strict federal regulation of the economic aspects of operation under FERC to the notion of free market regulation and “merchant generators.” When Entergy bought the plant, it went from cost plus regulation (which, ironically would have allowed VY to continue to operate in the face of falling natural gas prices) to dependence on power sales through the free market (either by contracts, until 2012, or through the spot market, after the contracts expired). Similarly, decommissioning under the old owners was a FERC “rate” and if the fund had been inadequate, FERC would have ordered that more money be collected from the utilities which owned the plant and they, in turn, would have passed on the costs to ratepayers. Switching to “merchant generator” status meant that Entergy no longer had access to ratepayers for additional funds and federal regulation has been, at best, indifferent in this area since the transition to market-based regulation.

        To make a long story short, your notion that this is somehow this administration’s failure of “thinking ahead” is factually baseless. It’s yet another instance of “Ready, Fire, Aim,” gratuitous criticism.

    • John Greenberg

      Moshe:

      “The time to get Entergy to put the needed monies into the fund was years ago.” See my comments below in reply to Peter Yankowski.

      “Now, with only half as much in the fund as needed, and no more coming in, full decommissioning will NEVER happen.” I agree that the prospect that money in the Fund will ever be adequate is vanishingly small; practically speaking, zero.

      At some point, decommissioning WILL happen nonetheless. At this point, it’s pretty hard to see who will end up footing the bill. Gven Entergy’s recent statements, its track record, and its assiduous effort to make the ownership of the plant as Byzantine as possible, my guess is that this will end up in a lengthy litigation process. Time will tell.

  • James Tillingham

    It never was Shumlin’s or the state’s intent to try to shutdown VY by legislative fiat. They knew they would lose. It was just harassment and another tool they used to so poison the economic and political environment so that no matter what VY did or didn’t do, they would be rendered non-competitive. Passing targeted taxes that applied only to VY, extorting money to fund pet projects (e.g., Lake Champlain cleanup) in order to get a CPG, instructing the ISO not to accept bids for VY power purchases. Not to mention you had maniacs setting fire to VY property, harassing employees and their families, running political campaigns on a promise to get VY shutdown any way possible, all those things and more made for such a toxic environment to do business that Entergy just threw in the towel. Entergy planned a growth curve for the decomm fund that was based on the extended license. 20 more years of operation with a growth rate of 3.6 per annum would do it. Any kind of competent money manager should be able to do that. That they are short now with no revenue stream is the fault of those who poisoned the business environment to the point of getting VY shutdown, which was the goal all along of those who did it .

    • John Greenberg

      James Tillingham:

      You write that someone – you don’t specify who – was “instructing the ISO not to accept bids for VY power purchases.” It’s the second time I’ve seen it in comments, but I’m otherwise completely in the dark about what you’re talking about. Who did the instructing? When did it happen? How did it happen? Was it successful?

      Could you please links to your sources for this allegation?

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