In a surprise announcement Thursday night, Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said the state has new statutory authority to “bill back” Entergy for emergency planning activities in towns around the Vernon nuclear plant.
Recchia expects the state also will be billing the plant’s owner for other Vermont Yankee-related work such as groundwater testing and nonradiological waste monitoring. All told, he said, the bills may come to $900,000 annually.
Federal regulators allowed Vermont Yankee’s 10-mile emergency zone to disappear in April, and Entergy’s mandatory financial support for related state programs is set to end June 30. So the state’s maneuver amounts to an end run around federal decisions, though state officials see it as a defense of public health and safety.
“The state of Vermont has an obligation to you folks, and we intend to meet it,” Recchia told the audience at Thursday’s meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Brattleboro. “So we will meet it, and we will be able to bill Entergy for that.”
It’s possible, though, that the state’s attempt to collect from Entergy will end up draining money from Vermont Yankee’s all-important decommissioning trust fund — setting the stage for further battles on that front.
“If the state bills back, we’ll look at the way in which we will pay that bill,” Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said. “And that may include the nuclear decommissioning trust.”
Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 and has sought federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval for several licensing changes for the Vernon plant.
Among them was elimination of the off-site emergency planning zone, which had touched 18 towns in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Late last year, the NRC agreed that the 10-mile zone would no longer be needed as of mid-April.
Federal officials cited the decreased risk of an accident at a permanently defueled reactor. Vermont officials had opposed the change, in part because most of Vermont Yankee’s radioactive spent nuclear fuel remains in a cooling pool and won’t be transferred to more stable dry cask storage until the end of 2020.
The end of the emergency planning zone has big financial implications. Each town and state in the zone has been getting annual funding from Entergy, and that obligation stops at the end of the current fiscal year.
In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Gov. Peter Shumlin had zeroed out the state’s Radiological Emergency Response Program. That’s a $1.6 million line item in the state’s current spending plan, and it’s entirely funded by Entergy.
Shortly after Shumlin unveiled those cuts in January, officials also said they weren’t sure how they would continue to pay for the state’s testing of groundwater samples from Vermont Yankee. That’s another Entergy-funded venture.
The state’s answer to those pending cuts came in the final week of the 2016 legislative session, when new language relating to “monitoring the post-closure activities of any nuclear generating plant within the state” was inserted into H.875, the fiscal 2017 budget bill.
Recchia said his department already had authority to bill Entergy for certain activities including legal and permit work. The new legislative language clarifies that the Department of Health and the Agency of Natural Resources each has the same authority; it also creates bill-back authority for the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, Recchia said.
Each of those agencies has a role in Yankee-related activities. Emergency Management operates the Radiological Emergency Response Program; the Department of Health conducts groundwater and environmental monitoring; and Natural Resources has authority over nonradiological waste at the plant.
“The various departments will structure their budgets … and then they will be able to bill back the time and money that they spend related to overseeing the nuclear power plant or the emergency planning zone or decommissioning,” Recchia said.
State officials had been talking with Entergy about the company voluntarily providing ongoing emergency funding. But “we were unable to find a path that worked for both Entergy and us, so that’s why the legislation was needed,” Recchia said.
He defended the 11th-hour legislative maneuver, saying it is “not unusual for legislators to amend a bill to add or subtract certain things at the end — happens all the time.”
While the new “bill back” authority has been approved by the Legislature, the affected state agencies still need to figure out how to implement it. Bill Irwin, the Health Department’s radiological and toxicological sciences chief, said he’s not yet sure what the state’s ongoing Vermont Yankee groundwater testing program will look like.
“We for the most part have to start from scratch to think about what is in the state’s interest, and then see how that meshes with what Entergy and Vermont Yankee staff already do, and fill in any gaps,” Irwin said.
Also examining the state’s options is Erica Bornemann, chief of staff for the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. She said the state’s revised Vermont Yankee emergency plan is still in the works and will be finalized in the coming weeks.
Officials said they expect to implement a plan that is less robust than the current one. So some details — including how emergency zone towns might benefit from continued funding — have not been determined.
“This is the first time we have had any experience with bill-back authority as established in the statute,” Bornemann said.
However the plan turns out, Bornemann said she’s happy there will be accommodations for enhanced emergency preparedness in the area surrounding Vermont Yankee. “The risk associated with a facility like this is more complex than what we would normally be faced with in any other town,” she said. “So really, the planning efforts, the training involved for personnel, need to reflect that.”
Entergy administrators surely will have much to say about the state’s Vermont Yankee emergency plans, but they appeared taken aback by Recchia’s announcement Thursday night.
Joe Lynch, Vermont Yankee’s government affairs manager, indicated a willingness to work with the state. “I think working collaboratively on a plan for both emergency planning and groundwater monitoring is going to be a success,” Lynch said.
“I’m hoping that’s the methodology, rather than (the state) doing it independently, because that doesn’t serve anybody,” he added.