Editor’s note: This commentary is by Sandra Levine, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.
One of the more vexing problems of closed nuclear power plants is making sure the sites get cleaned up. Once closed, the operators no longer have electricity to sell that can help pay for the cleanup. Most sites will remain somewhat contaminated for decades — if not centuries. Vermont is no stranger to the legacy of pollution left behind by old power and industrial plants. From the PFOA contamination in Bennington to the Barge Canal in Burlington, and the battery plant in St. Albans, no corner of Vermont is spared.
The closed Vermont Yankee facility in Vernon is one of the latest entrants in this group. The plant closed in 2014. When its current owner, Entergy, purchased Vermont Yankee in 2002, it also acquired the obligation for cleanup when the plant closed and the ability to use the money previously set aside for decommissioning. The money on hand is not sufficient to complete the task soon. Like a retirement account, the money is set aside and invested so that when it will be used for “retirement,” it will be sufficient. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the plant cleanup. Its rules allow Entergy to place the plant in a form of storage for up to 60 years before decommissioning, allowing the value to increase.
Although Entergy has begun work to dismantle the plant and store radioactive fuel rods in concrete casks at the site, it now seeks approval to transfer what remains to a new owner, Northstar. Entergy would transfer everything — including the decommissioning funds. In exchange, Northstar would pay $1,000 to Entergy and Northstar would assume full responsibility for site restoration. Northstar plans to begin decommissioning sooner and thus hopes to complete its work earlier than the up to 60 years that Entergy had planned.
A public hearing and presentation will be made on the proposed transfer at the Vernon Elementary School on the evening of April 6 beginning at 6 p.m.
While a quicker restoration of the Vermont Yankee site would be good, that exists merely as a possibility and not a firm commitment. Aside from timing, it is also important to make sure that the job is done well. The money and expertise available must be sufficient to remediate the contamination so the site is suitable for other uses.
The proposed transfer will be reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board, which will decide by the end of the year if the transfer promotes the public good. A public hearing and presentation will be made on the proposed transfer at the Vernon Elementary School on the evening of April 6 beginning at 6 p.m. Written comments can also be provided on the Public Service Board’s website. The public hearing and comments allow people to express their concerns to regulators and let them know which issues are important.
While matters regarding radiological health and safety will be reviewed separately by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Vermont Public Service Board will still need to determine that the new owners have the ability, expertise and financial resources required to get the job done well, even if the cleanup does not go as planned.
Entergy owns other nuclear plants. Some of them will be closing soon, including the Pilgrim nuclear facility in Massachusetts. As a possible model for future cleanups, it is especially important for regulators to carefully scrutinize this first transfer by Entergy.
When it comes to Vermont Yankee, Vermonters have already been burned once by promises that were not kept, polluting leaks that were hidden and management that failed to address serious problems. Vermont regulators should be vigilant. Succumbing again to vague or unenforceable promises would be foolhardy. As recent experience with the Vermont Gas pipeline shows, when it comes to big utility projects, things rarely go as planned. Staying on budget or on time is too often a dream rather than a reality.
In approving any transfer, regulators must be certain that the new owner is up to the task and that effective oversight is in place for the work being done. This is a new endeavor. Respect for Vermont’s environment and communities requires strict accountability and not treating them as guinea pigs to test a plan that may only look good on paper, but falls apart if things do not go according to plan. Vermonters should not face the risk of a deal being approved only to find that the deal goes sour when the new owner does a poor job or goes belly up and leaves Vermonters with yet another polluted mess.
The cleanup of Vermont Yankee should set an exemplary model and offer more than vague promises. It should instead demonstrate real action that reverses the sad legacy of industrial pollution.