Entergy has found an unlikely ally in its quest to sell Vermont Yankee, and some anti-nuclear activists aren’t happy about it.
Elizabeth Miller – formerly an Entergy adversary in two prominent roles in state government – now is listed among the attorneys representing the company as it seeks state Public Service Board permission to sell the defunct Vernon plant to a New York-based cleanup specialist.
Miller, who’s now a private attorney in Burlington, confirmed her role in the sale proceeding but said she doesn’t comment on client retentions. And an Entergy Vermont Yankee spokesman said the company, as a matter of policy, would have no comment on the matter.
But some Entergy critics wonder whether Miller’s deep and recent involvement in Vermont Yankee regulatory affairs could give the company an important advantage in the Public Service Board’s upcoming deliberations.
“She has been hired because the hope is that, with the kind of influence she had in the Shumlin administration, she’ll be able to grease the wheels in the sale to NorthStar,” said Deb Katz, Citizens Awareness Network executive director.
“We are very concerned about, basically, the dog and pony show that Entergy and NorthStar are creating to make this look like a really great deal for the state of Vermont,” Katz added.
Both Entergy and NorthStar Group Services Inc., the plant’s potential buyer, are touting the proposed sale as a win for Windham County and the state.
Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee two years ago and had been planning to use the SAFSTOR method of cleanup, which would have allowed decommissioning to take up to 60 years.
NorthStar, however, is pledging to finish decommissioning and site restoration on most of the property by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026.
The sale requires approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Service Board. Entergy and NorthStar filed their state paperwork Dec. 16, kicking off what’s expected to be a long permitting process.
Among that paperwork is a notice of appearance from Miller, who’s representing three Entergy corporate entities involved in the transaction.
Miller was working as a private attorney six years ago when then Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin appointed her to lead the state Public Service Department, which is tasked with representing the public interest in matters including energy and telecommunications.
Shumlin was a prominent Vermont Yankee opponent both before and after he became governor, and Miller’s role included advocating for the state’s positions during a tumultuous time that included tritium leaks and an extended relicensing battle.
In November 2012, Miller became Shumlin’s chief of staff. She was succeeded at the Public Service Department by Chris Recchia, who has been a central figure in the Vermont Yankee decommissioning debate.
Miller left state government in May 2015.
Her renewed involvement in state energy issues is not out of sync with statements she made in a 2012 interview. At the time, Miller indicated that she had no issues with cross-pollination between the public and private sectors.
“I think the government is well-served by pulling in individuals who have had private sector experience and vice versa,” she said.
Nor does her new role appear to conflict with Shumlin’s Executive Code of Ethics, which governs the actions of appointed state officials both during and after their time in office.
For one year after leaving, that code says, a former appointee cannot “for pecuniary gain, be an advocate for any private entity before any public body or before the state Legislature or its committees regarding any particular matter in which the appointee had exercised any official responsibility.”
Miller is well beyond that one-year time frame.
Nonetheless, some are less than comfortable with her role in such a critical Public Service Board case.
Clay Turnbull, a trustee and staffer with the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, decried a “revolving door” between government and business in Vermont. He believes that the influence arising from such close relations may stifle the work of an advocacy group like his own.
“It is a concern to us because our experience has been, in recent years, that a decision has been made before a docket even begins,” Turnbull said. “And some of that (happens) because there’s a revolving door.”
Turnbull said Miller’s prior knowledge and experience as a state official in Vermont Yankee matters “might give her an edge or a leg up over other intervenors” in this case.
He also wondered whether Entergy could benefit from Miller’s history as a face of the Shumlin administration’s renewable energy policies. She was “very much associated with clean energy, progressive thinking,” Turnbull said.
Entergy and NorthStar executives have characterized the Vermont Yankee sale proposal as a progressive, first-of-its-kind solution to nuclear cleanup. But Katz isn’t buying it, and she’s worried that the deal will go through without proper scrutiny.
“The danger is that this will turn into a dirty and cheap cleanup,” she said.
Katz said she’s not convinced that NorthStar has the expertise or resources to do the job right. NorthStar hasn’t specifically done this type of decomissioning job before, although the company has worked on smaller reactors and larger fossil fuel plants and also plans to partner at Vermont Yankee with a Paris-based nuclear specialist.
“This is an experiment,” Katz said. “And the state has to decide whether they’re willing to risk an experiment going on in Vermont.”
Attorneys like Miller will be attempting to refute such arguments in the coming months. Also joining in that effort will be Anthony Iarrapino, a Montpelier attorney who said he’s working on “communications and outreach efforts” – not direct legal representation – for NorthStar.
Iarrapino’s new role could be seen as a departure given his previous environmental advocacy work as a Conservation Law Foundation attorney.
But Iarrapino draws a direct line between his concern for the environment and NorthStar’s plan to accelerate Vermont Yankee decommissioning.
“I would say that the work that I have done in the past … has been aimed at a positive outcome like this since Entergy announced the closure of Vermont Yankee,” he said. “I’m excited to be working with NorthStar because the company has an exemplary record of completing big decommissioning projects.”