Schuyler Gould: A thorough vetting of decommissioning

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Schuyler Gould, of Brattleboro, who is a retired building contractor and is currently a trustee of New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution.

Guy Page’s tired defense of the Entergy/NorthStar Vermont Yankee sale against the skepticism of “long-time antagonist of nuclear power,” New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, misstates the facts of the matter at almost every turn. Contrary to Mr. Page’s accusations regarding our intentions, New England Coalition is in every way on the side of a safe and prompt decommissioning of Vermont Yankee. Such has been and remains at the very core of our mission for the past 46 years. An unsafe decommissioning, however prompt, doesn’t work for us. Neither does the prospect of what seems an overly ambitious and ill-prepared proposal, which could leave Vermont on the hook for a polluted, not fully decommissioned facility with 42 years of high level nuclear waste on site needing to be tended for an indefinite future.

While emphasizing “nothing technologically new or experimental about this plan,” Mr. Page cites the “novel aspects of the plan … related to budgeting and organization …” He clearly has no reservations about any aspects of the proposal, calling it “a better mousetrap,” “a major improvement of the industry standard.” If it weren’t clear whom he is actually representing, it would be unclear what the source of those claims are.

Mr. Page lists the many “protections” proffered by the joint petitioners — performance bonds, an insurance fund, contingency budgeting, a surplus-over-budget in the decommissioning trust fund. He fails to note the alarm the state, ourselves and others have raised over the prospect of significant cost overruns by a limited liability company incorporated only last November and whose only assets would be those in the decommissioning trust fund.

He further holds, “the applied (decommissioning) science … has been proven both safe and economically successful.” This claim has no basis in fact. Decommissionings industry-wide, save one, have come in 30 percent over budget at a minimum, and no commercial reactor facility in this country has yet been returned to unrestricted use. Connecticut Yankee’s decommissioning was $400 million over budget, Yankee Rowe’s $140 million or nearly 40 percent. Both overruns were due to unanticipated pollution remediation necessary to make the sites “safe.” That’s just in our neck of the woods. Mr. Page might have cautioned that NorthStar has never before decommissioned a commercial reactor.

Mr. Page clearly holds in high regard both the newly named Vermont Public Utilities Commission, formerly the Public Service Board, and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, both of which must approve the sale. But he seems ambivalent about their ability to do their jobs, lamenting that addressing New England Coalition’s concerns might prove “harmful to both the environment and the economy … (by) delaying decommissioning by more than 50 years.” While NEC is sympathetic to everyone’s desire, ours included, to get this job done as quickly as possible, it’s absurd to suggest that either body would delay decommissioning without good cause. Both agencies have a legal and moral obligation to protect Vermonters from corporate overreach or malfeasance.

We at NEC would certainly feel better about this process if we weren’t being repeatedly challenged by both Entergy and NorthStar with what seem bad faith efforts to undermine both our many concerns and the legitimacy of the process itself. NorthStar has made it clear that it does not intend to abide by important commitments made by Entergy in the original certificate of public good issued at the plant’s closure in 2014. These include an agreement to not rubblize over one million cubic feet of concrete, some of it radioactive, and bury it onsite. Likewise, Entergy and NorthStar are vociferously challenging not just NEC’s bid to intervene with its concerns before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission but the state’s as well.

The just proposed sale of a majority interest in NorthStar’s parent company to a New York private equity firm, obviously long in the works but only just coming to light, adds a significant new wrinkle to an already complex fabric. And it too must be approved by both the PUC and the NRC. Even if it is, NorthStar will still have hanging over it an ongoing $213 million fraud suit in Delaware’s Court of Chancery. How its outcome may affect NorthStar’s financial and operational viability has been challenged by NorthStar as irrelevant to the proceedings before the PUC.

Can NorthStar succeed with its “better mousetrap?” Remember, this is a nuclear power plant. It’s fair to say we all would like to think so. But neither we, nor the state of Vermont, nor the six other intervenors before the PUC, nor the federal government are going to take Entergy’s or NorthStar’s word for it. If Entergy and NorthStar are so sure of the strength and integrity of their proposal, their parent companies should have no trouble guaranteeing full funding for the satisfactory completion of the job. Mr. Page, the state, everyone should be asking for this.

A transparent and thorough review of issues central to the public good is an essential element of the democratic process. We join Mr. Page in his final plea: “Let’s let this process work.”

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