Milton Eaton: Defending Vermont Yankee decommissioning

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Milton A. Eaton, of Brattleboro, who is a former senior official for the U.S. Department of Energy and former Vermont secretary of Economic Development and Community Affairs.

When NorthStar’s plan to decommission Vermont Yankee receives inaccurate attacks, I feel the need to address the inaccuracies because I care about the local economy.

NorthStar’s plan has come under fire twice within the past few weeks: for supposedly not displaying enough financial strength to finish the job (“Environmental Group seeks added financial protections,” Vermont Public Radio), and for withholding from the general public certain documents that could result in losing hard-won competitive advantages over industry competitors (“Vermont Yankee companies expand request,” VTDigger, Aug. 31).

I have confidence a thorough study and understanding of these issues by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission should promptly lead to a certificate of public good decision in favor of NorthStar. Such a decision will open the Vermont Yankee site to job-producing redevelopment many years sooner than the Entergy “safstor” plan, at half the cost.

In the meantime, the court of public opinion might benefit from true facts­­­­­.

According to Vermont Public Radio, the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) seems skeptical about NorthStar’s financial strength to finish the job and hints that Vermont ratepayers could be stuck with the bill. They suggest, Entergy should be the bill payer of last resort. First and foremost, CLF must recognize that the license holder (which would be NorthStar) is solely financially liable for decommissioning.

By the federal nuclear regulations, it is impossible to leave ratepayers of a host state on the hook. Not only is putting Vermont ratepayers at risk legally impossible under federal law, it is also extremely unlikely from a financial viewpoint. At present, the Vermont Yankee nuclear decommissioning trust fund is worth about $73 million more than the total projected cost, and the fund’s value is consistently accumulating. NorthStar’s plan also includes multiple layers of financial safeguards to handle any unforeseen expenses. Further, NorthStar itself was recently acquired by a major Wall Street investment firm that announced their commitment to any necessary capitalization in pursuit of the company’s quest to become the national leader in nuclear decommissioning. As a former U.S. Department of Energy executive who worked with and represented the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, I’m more than satisfied with NorthStar’s indicated financial position.

As to protecting trade secrets: when Exxon builds a refinery, it is not required to publicize the secrets of its processes. Apple is not required to publish its protected algorithms every time it seeks to open a new store. Neither should NorthStar be required to release its competitive techniques and trade secrets. However, against my and Rudyard Kipling’s advice, NorthStar has agreed to allow intervenors to view protected trade information in a carefully controlled way. That should be sufficient for the state of Vermont.

The decommissioning regulatory process is meant to vet applications and approve the good ones, not to chase them away. It is my hope that the flood of anti-nuclear and anti-manufacturing regulations unleashed by the state of Vermont reached their high-water mark in the previous administration and are now receding.

The goal of all should still be the return of the site to a reusable state as promptly as possible.

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