Vermont Yankee sale optimism tempered by questions

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is seen through the on-site power switch yard owned by VELCO, Vermont's transmission utility. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is seen through the on-site power switch yard owned by VELCO, Vermont’s transmission utility. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

VERNON – Cautious optimism was the prevailing mood on Tuesday after Entergy announced the pending sale of Vermont Yankee.

There was applause at the news that the plant’s prospective buyer – New York-based NorthStar Group Services Inc. – is promising to dramatically speed up decommissioning of the shutdown Vernon nuclear plant.

At the same time, observers including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gov. Peter Shumlin and local officials involved in Vermont Yankee affairs pledged to take a close look at the details of Entergy’s plans.

“Getting the plant decommissioned sooner has been a constant concern for the public, so [Tuesday’s] announcement is good news,” said Kate O’Connor, chairwoman of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. “I look forward to learning more about the plan. The devil is in the details, but if the work can be done safely and at no cost to the taxpayers of Vermont, we’ll be moving in the right direction.”

Entergy, which stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014, on Tuesday announced an agreement to sell the plant’s assets to NorthStar by the end of 2018, pending federal and state approvals of the deal.

With the exception of the plant’s long-term storage facility for spent fuel, NorthStar is looking to finish decommissioning and restoration of the Vermont Yankee site by 2030 – 45 years earlier than Entergy had planned.

“This is something my administration has advocated for, and as a governor who is from Windham County, I can tell you that it would be a major positive for the economy and for jobs in southern Vermont,” Shumlin said of the accelerated schedule. “I am also pleased that Entergy is announcing plans to move up by two years, to 2018, the date by which spent fuel will be transferred to dry cask storage.”

Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, who has worked extensively on Vermont Yankee regulatory issues, also sounded upbeat about the announcement.

Chris Campany

Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany speaks in May 2016 at a meeting of planners and development officials from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

“The acceleration of the decommissioning of the plant, as well as the transfer of spent fuel to dry casks, would seem to be a very positive outcome for Vernon, the region, the state and Entergy,” Campany said. “I hope NorthStar will retain current employees to assist with the decommissioning, as legacy knowledge of the plant has been cited as an advantage of prompt decommissioning over deferring decommissioning for decades.”

Ray Shadis, technical adviser for the Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition, offered an endorsement of quicker decommissioning – though he wasn’t fond of the mechanism by which it’s happening.

“The fact of accelerating the decommissioning is something that New England Coalition has advocated from the get-go. It’s doable. It’s fiscally responsible,” Shadis said. “The transfer of title is a way of ducking liability, and that sets our antenna to wiggling a little bit, because one thing that Entergy agreed to when they purchased the plant is that they would assume all liabilities when it came to decommissioning.”

In the wake of Entergy’s announcement, there also were lingering questions on several fronts including:

Finances

NorthStar would take custody of Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund, which stood at $574.9 million at the end of September. But regulators pledged to ensure that the contractor has the resources to do the job right.

“The NRC will conduct a thorough review of any proposal to transfer the Vermont Yankee license,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “As is always the case, we will seek to ensure that a prospective new owner has the financial and technical wherewithal to safely and effectively carry out the radiological decommissioning of the plant.”

Shumlin called for “an open and transparent look at the financial capabilities of the buyer” during a state Public Service Board review of the sale. “The state and the public must have confidence that the buyer has financial backing to meet the decommissioning schedule, even in the event that they find additional cleanup work necessary that we cannot foresee,” he said.

Spent fuel safety

Entergy contractor Holtec International has asked the NRC to approve transferring some of Vermont Yankee’s fuel to sealed dry casks earlier than usual, meaning the radioactive material will have had less than five years to cool in a pool inside the plant’s reactor building.

Vermont Yankee

Vermont Yankee spent fuel pad. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

Sheehan said most federal approvals for dry cask storage require that the fuel be cooled for at least five years. But he added that, “depending on the type of fuel and the particular cask design, the minimum acceptable cooling time may be as short as three years.”

“The bottom line is that, in order to load spent fuel into dry casks, the company must ensure that the spent fuel meets all of the required characteristics specified by the cask manufacturer and contained in the certificate of compliance issued to the manufacturer by the NRC,” Sheehan said.

Site restoration and redevelopment

There are high hopes that some portion of the Vermont Yankee site can be redeveloped, and NorthStar’s work would offer that opportunity earlier. That’s good news for the Vernon Planning Commission, which has been talking to Entergy and trying to find economic development opportunities in the wake of Yankee’s closure.

“My reaction was that this was a positive next step for the town of Vernon and the work that the Planning Commission’s been doing for the last several years,” said Bob Spencer, the commission’s chairman.

“We have a lot of interest in working with the new owners,” Spencer added. “And it appears that’s one of the objectives – to free up the land.”

The fact that spent fuel will remain on site for decades shouldn’t preclude reuse of some portions of the property, said Bill Mohl, Entergy Wholesale Commodities president. He mentioned the possibility of industrial or solar development.

“I think there are parcels of land that are sufficient to accommodate that,” Mohl said.

The eventual condition of the property, however, may be a matter of debate.

Entergy and state officials in 2013 signed a Vermont Yankee shutdown settlement agreement that called for “site restoration standards necessary to support use of the property without limitation.” Entergy’s announcement on Tuesday said the company will ask the Public Service Board for restoration standards “that are generally consistent with those of other regional decommissioning projects.”

Mohl acknowledged that the difference between those two statements is “subject to interpretation. That’s one of the issues that we will have to resolve as we go through the Public Service Board process.”

Clay Turnbull, a trustee for the New England Coalition, cautioned that site restoration is a key issue. The coalition has advocated for Vermont Yankee cleanup that is “as protective of the environment and people as possible.”

“Let’s not get into a state of irrational exuberance, at least until we see the terms of the sale proposal,” Turnbull said.

Mike Faher

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