Citizens panel wants help to deal with Vermont Yankee sale

Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel
The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel at a meeting last year. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
VERNON – The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel met 19 times before Nov. 8.

But everything changed that day, when Entergy announced a tentative deal to sell Vermont Yankee to NorthStar Group Services, a New York-based decommissioning company.

Given NorthStar’s plan to greatly accelerate decommissioning of the Vernon plant, some are wondering whether a panel that’s supposed to advise state government and “serve as a conduit for public information” can do its job without additional resources – most likely from the state.

Panel members are working to come up with a specific financial request. Some say the biggest need may be money to hire independent experts who can evaluate claims made by NorthStar and Entergy.

As things now stand, “we’re basically left doing a lot of heavy lifting on our own,” panel Chair Kate O’Connor said.

The advisory panel was formed by the Legislature in 2014. Designed to focus on decommissioning, the 19-member group began meeting a few months before Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee.

In a recent report to a joint meeting of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee and the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, O’Connor detailed the panel’s activities over the past few years.

Though the statute creating VNDCAP requires just four meetings a year, the panel has held 21 so far. In addition to hearing reports, asking questions and soliciting public comment, members have in some cases weighed in on decommissioning issues.

In trying to raise public awareness of decommissioning, “I think, by the number of meetings that we’ve had and the public input that we have, we’ve been doing a good job at that,” O’Connor said. “That’s very important to us.”

Much of the panel’s work, however, had been based on the assumption that actual decommissioning was a long way off. Entergy has been preparing Vermont Yankee for SAFSTOR, a dormancy program under which cleanup could take 60 years.

In contrast, NorthStar has promised to have most of the job done by 2030 at the latest.

The company needs state and federal permission to purchase Vermont Yankee, and those reviews are underway. The question for VNDCAP is how much the panel can participate in a relatively fast-moving, highly technical review – and furthermore, how well the group will be able to advise state government and the public regarding the sale.

Though the advisory panel was created by the Legislature, members say there’s no line item in the state budget to support it. State statute says only that the Vermont Public Service Department will provide resources “as the commissioner may consider appropriate on request of the panel from time to time.”

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor. Photo courtesy The Commons
The department has provided some important administrative and technical assistance, O’Connor said. And Entergy – which has two representatives on the panel – also has pitched in.

But Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, who serves on the advisory panel, argues that the group needs money to fund independent research. He mentioned complex questions that have arisen regarding NorthStar’s financial assurances and the projected costs of decommissioning.

“One of the things that I would suggest we want to make sure of is that the panel has access to its own experts to kind of help explain what is being presented so that we can arrive at our own conclusions,” Campany said.

Others concurred. Jim Matteau, a Westminster resident who serves on the panel, said there’s a lot of initial optimism about NorthStar’s purchase proposal.

“That optimism needs to be tempered with some healthy skepticism,” Matteau said. He added that, if Entergy or NorthStar makes a claim, “I’d like someone else to help me understand if it’s true.”

Campany warned that, when it comes to nuclear policy experts, “those folks don’t come free or cheap.” VNDCAP members, when pressed for a specific financial request at the joint hearing Feb. 8, didn’t have an answer.

O’Connor stressed that panel members are not requesting a paid staffer and “don’t want to create something that’s high-overhead.”

In an interview this week, O’Connor said she had not yet gotten back to lawmakers on the issue because she doesn’t want to request funding “until we know what we really need.” The matter is expected to come up again at the panel’s March meeting.

“Every time we talk about it, it’s in big-picture terms,” O’Connor said. “What we need to do is drill down more, because we may not need the money we think we need.”

The issue of state support for the advisory panel has come up before, without any real resolution. But some say that, with the Vermont Yankee sale looming, now is a good time to figure it out.

Noting that NorthStar’s purchase would be “the first of its kind in the country,” O’Connor told lawmakers that “it’s important for you in the Legislature to understand some of the issues that are going to arise from this. They’re financial, and they’re technical.”

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  • Guy Page

    I’ve attended all but one of those 19 meetings. I admire NDCAP members of all points of view for their obvious commitment to providing a forum for sharing of news and views on VY decommissioning. I always come away from an NDCAP meeting with something new to think about. It’s also a great place to “network” with other people following the decommissioning issue.

    As to whether NDCAP should secure state or decommissioning trust funding to pay for its own nuclear expert – I am skeptical. First, NDCAP was not established to provide comprehensive, expert, technical information to the Legislature or any other body. As a “citizen’s advisory panel,” it is a sort of micro U.N., a forum for the different interests and constituencies to hear and be heard. Second, there is already considerable expertise available at NDCAP meetings. Two state-employed nuclear scientists (Dr. Bill Irwin and Anthony Leshinskie) are always present. On the industry side, there’s always a handful of Vermont Yankee engineers either on the panel or in the audience.

    But third, and most important to both supporters and skeptics alike, the VY/NorthStar decommissioning will be very carefully examined, cross-examined, and ruled on by both the Vermont Public Service Board and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Both state and federal governments will be calling streams of expert witnesses. Both regulatory processes are expected to take over a year, and will feature ample opportunity for public input as well. Thanks to the new ePSB portal, every word of public comment, expert testimony, rebuttal, etc. etc. about Docket 8880 is available to the general public – including, of course, the NDCAP.

    So, in-depth technical consulting on behalf of NDCAP runs the risk of being both expensive, and redundant. Rather than hire a consultant work with money from either Vermont taxpayers or the VY Decommissioning Trust Fund, the NDCAP would make better use of its time and money by using its in-house technical resources, and leave the really heavy lifting to the intervenors, including the Vermont Public Service Department, before the PSB and the NRC. The NDCAP should continue to serve Vermonters in a way that neither PSB nor NRC can ever do – by providing a safe, structured place for Vermonters to ask questions, get answers, and express opinions about decommissioning. – Guy Page, Communications Director, Vermont Energy Partnership

  • gary sachs

    Mr. Page sure does have a big long opinion. He is paid and bought by Entergy that is VT energy partnership, or is that northstar. Stated bluntly VNDCAP has never had, nor did VSNAP. state nuclear advisory panel, have any teeth.

    Ms O’Connor acts like this is all new to her. I thought she was next to Dr Dean in the Statehouse. hhmpph.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am glad she is on the issue now.

    I read her last statement wanting legislators to understand- the legislature to understand some of the financial and technical issues that will arise decommissioning and decontaminating a 45 year old atomic reactor site.
    This is a great idea. I too would like to see more elected officials understand some of the financial and technical issues sure to arise.

    Mr. Page is hilarious in considering that the Public Service Board and its staff may have the knowledge needed to be able to view directly, to perform due diligence, and to show due process,and to find what is in the best interest of the state – all they know is what Entergy / VY has told them. Years and years of case material. Two members of the current PSB are former VT department of public service lawyers who have both worked on previous VY/ Entergy cases. The third member of the PSB is a federal representative’s wife. Be real. This is the same PSB that neglected to pull Entergy’s license after the mis speaking incidents of 2009 as directed and allowed in docket 6545, the sale to Entergy.

    Mr. Page and I both know that the NRC really does not have an adequate plan to deal with the decommissioning of reactors. Northstar is pushing real hard here in VT wanting a chop chop quick entergy fast decision. ( Allegedly Entergy is obligated to put all High Level Waste, all the rods from the fuel pool into dry casks (( not yet inspected/approved by the NRC))before the end of 2018.

    Meanwhile one of Northstar’s partners Waste Control Specialist is trying to shove down our throats the desired opening of the nation’s first open air High Level Waste interim repository. What is wrong with this? The proximity to the Ogallala Aquifer- the aquifer for the breadbasket of the nation. Maybe we should not risk poisoning it.

    Mr Page I disagree. To leave it to the intervenors depends on some group willing to do the heavy lifting for all of us. I object. Those are my brain cells you’re talking bout using.

    I want to keep the pressure on.

    Mr Page wants us all to look the other way. Nothing to see here folks.

    Where do you think the department gets money for experts Sir?
    If they do, I haven’t seen their experts in my many years at PSB hearings.