Entergy agrees to provide notice of trust fund withdrawals

VERNON – Vermont Yankee owner Entergy has dropped its bid to withdraw cash from the nuclear power plant’s decommissioning trust fund without first notifying the federal government.

It’s a victory for the state of Vermont, which had challenged Entergy’s attempt to amend its license and eliminate a required 30-day advance notice for fund withdrawals. Just a few weeks ago, the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had granted the state a hearing on the matter.

While the company dropped its challenge to the notification process, the move has no bearing on how Entergy can spend the decommissioning money.

The company has said it wants to use tens of millions of dollars from the decommissioning fund to move spent nuclear fuel into temporary storage and other expenses unrelated to decommissioning. The state has argued that all of the money should be used to decommission and dismantle the nuclear power plant.

The company is not admitting defeat on the substance of that debate. In a statement issued Wednesday, Entergy spokesman Martin Cohn wrote that “Entergy does not concede any merit to the state of Vermont’s assertions.”

But Entergy decided to stop the fight “after weighing the substantial costs of pursuing approval of the (license amendment request) through litigation against the modest benefit of alleviating the administrative burden of continuing to provide the notifications,” Cohn wrote.

Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia was elected chair of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Brattleboro on Thursday.  Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said the announcement is “very good news,” though it resolves just one of many disputes between the state and Entergy.

“This is a very big victory, but it was an obvious one,” Recchia said. “If (Entergy) had been thinking this through, I think they would have tried to work with us on making a settlement decision.”

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell noted that, “if we had allowed Entergy to amend its license, no one would know when it was taking money out of the decommissioning trust fund or how much it was taking.”

“Because we instead worked with the Department of Public Service to challenge Entergy’s request, we will now get that information – this month, next month and even 60 years from now,” Sorrell said in a statement.

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power at the end of 2014, and Entergy is taking the Vernon plant into SAFSTOR, an extended period of dormancy that allows the dismantling of the plant to extend up to 60 years after shutdown. But there is hope that the job could be completed sooner: A 2013 shutdown settlement agreement between the state and Entergy says that the process should begin “without unreasonable delay, as soon as there are sufficient funds in the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust.”

The problem is, Entergy only has about half the money needed to begin decommissioning the plant, and it could be decades before the fund builds sufficient capital. Entergy projects it will need $1.2 billion to fully clean up the site; the fund at last report held about $636 million.

There are ongoing disputes regarding Entergy’s proposed uses for the trust fund. For instance, state officials don’t believe the company should be able to spend trust-fund money on spent fuel management or property tax payments. Wednesday’s news doesn’t change any of that.

What it affects, however, is a year-long debate over whether Entergy should be required to give the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission a 30-day notice before taking money from the fund. The company argues that such notification is unnecessary, while state officials have maintained that advance notice allows the government and the public to scrutinize – and possibly stop – any improper trust-fund withdrawals.

Though NRC staff already had approved elimination of the 30-day notices, that couldn’t take effect until Entergy’s license was amended. On Wednesday, Entergy abandoned that amendment request, with Yankee Site Vice President Chris Wamser writing in a letter to the NRC that “Entergy has determined that maintaining the existing license conditions represents a manageable administrative burden.”

Entergy’s motion, dated Sept. 22, asks for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board’s permission to withdraw its license-amendment request “without conditions, and to dismiss this proceeding without prejudice.”

The document says neither the NRC nor the state opposes withdrawal of the amendment request. But Entergy also says the state “intends to file a response opposing unconditional withdrawal of the (amendment) and seeking instead that the board impose conditions on the withdrawal.”

First, Entergy is concerned that the state wants “substantial additional detail” included in the company’s future trust-fund disbursement requests. Currently, the company sends a letter to the NRC mentioning only the maximum amount it wants to withdraw during a specific time period.

Recchia confirmed that the state will be asking for more detail in Entergy’s 30-day notices.

“The reason we are asking for this is so that we can get factual information on proposed (trust fund) disbursements in advance,” he said.

Also, Entergy says the state has suggested that it still may want the company to provide additional “disclosures relevant to this proceeding” in spite of the fact that the license-amendment process is ending.

Entergy contends Vermont has no standing to request either of those conditions. The company argues that the state would need to show “legal injury” or even “bad faith on the part of the applicant” in order to ask the federal government to impose new conditions on Entergy’s Vermont Yankee license.

There has been no such legal injury or bad faith, Entergy says. And the company says dropping its license-amendment request essentially gives the state what it had wanted.

“This withdrawal, prior to a hearing, will conserve substantial resources of the parties, the staff and the board,” Entergy’s motion says. “The withdrawal effectively imposes the very remedy that the state requested in this proceeding – that Entergy continues to be bound by its current license conditions regarding the decommissioning trust. Placing conditions on the withdrawal would be contrary to established commission precedent.”

Mike Faher

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  • Randy Koch

    But wait, why else did Entergy buy Vt Yankee except to get its mitts on the slush fund I mean decommissioning account. In the decades to come, barring a revolution, the Vermont citizenry will likely be the ones to shut down and store waste and any number of other expensive if not impossible chores.

    • John Greenberg

      Randy Koch:

      “why else did Entergy buy Vt Yankee except to get its mitts on the slush fund I mean decommissioning account”? When Entergy “got its mitts on” the decommissioning fund (an asset worth north of $250 million), it also took full possession of the accompanying liability, which was, at the time around $500 million (relying on memory). Since then, in very round terms, both have doubled, but little has changed.

  • Kevin Daniels

    It doesn’t matter how many times you repeat a lie, it’s still a lie.

  • Schuyler Gould

    ” . . . a manageable administrative burden.” That would be pressing the “SEND” key. Entergy concedes nothing here, maintaining the state has no right to any information in the 30-day warning other than the “maximum amount it wants to withdraw.” It could theoretically, by its rules, want to withdraw the entire amount in the fund every single month, which would be true. The devil is in the details and whether or not the state can command a breakdown of what those anticipated expenses are for. Stay tuned! This battle is just warming up.

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