Vt Yankee: State will try to push decommissioning
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | August 28,2013
MONTPELIER — After battling for years to shutter the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, the Legislature finally got what it wanted Tuesday, albeit not as a result of the laws it enacted to force the issue.
But while Entergy has chosen of its own accord to cease operations at its Vernon plant by the end of 2014, legislators say they’ll continue to play a role in its oversight. And though the scope of the state’s legal authority isn’t clear yet, House Speaker Shap Smith said he’ll pursue whatever options are at his disposal to expedite a decommissioning process that could soon become the center of its own legislative controversy.
“We will continue to make sure that we play the role that we need to to force the decommissioning fund to be fully funded, because it’s vital to the economic vitality of Windham County, and it’s vital to the long-term future of Windham County,” Smith said.
The announcement that Entergy would be closing the plant has spawned a whole new set of questions for lawmakers, including when Vermont Yankee will be decommissioned, whether Entergy has sufficient money to pay for the process, and the degree to which the site will be restored to its pre-plant condition.
Comments out of both camps Tuesday suggest that Entergy and Vermont politicians may already be on a collision course when it comes to those issues. But in the early going at least, state officials have opted for diplomacy over saber rattling.
Two laws, since overturned, sought to place control over operation of the plant in the hands of the Vermont Legislature. A harsh critic of Entergy who rode his opposition to the plant’s continued operation to victory in the gubernatorial election in 2010, Shumlin struck a more conciliatory tone Tuesday.
At a late-morning news conference in Montpelier, Shumlin said his concern lies first with the 600 workers, about 40 percent of whom live in Vermont, whose jobs will be eliminated as a result of the closure.
Shumlin said he wants to see the plant site restored to “greenfield” conditions, similar to what existed before the plant’s construction in 1962. But asked when he wanted to see the decommissioning completed, Shumlin wouldn’t offer a time frame.
“What I really want to do is use this opportunity to build a better relationship with Entergy,” Shumlin said. “And I offered to the CEO that face-to-face meetings are better than telephone conversations. He agreed with me.”
Based on indications Entergy offered up Tuesday in a supplement to the news release announcing the closure, the company and the state of Vermont may be at odds on the decommissioning time frame.
Under the section titled “How long will the entire decommissioning process take?” Entergy answers that “the complete decommissioning process is likely to take decades.”
Entergy, according to its release, intends to leave the plant idle indefinitely — a process known as Safstor — pending the actual dismantling of the facility. Entergy says there are a number of advantages to Safstor, “including lower potential radiation exposure for workers doing the decommissioning work and the need for fewer shipments of radioactive material to the low-level waste site.”
Lawmakers and Shumlin, however, say the economic future of southern Vermont hinges on the timely decommissioning of the plant. The sooner Vermont Yankee is restored to pre-nuclear conditions, Shumlin and Smith said, the sooner Vermont can repurpose the site into a regional economic hub.
“My concern is jobs,” Shumlin said. “And the sooner we can return that to a greenfield, so we can use the extraordinary resources there — the transmission to help power our green energy future — the better off for Vermont in terms of jobs.”
The Safstor process at defunct nuclear power plants can last decades. Sandra Levine, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation of Vermont, said that in a best-case scenario, the Yankee site could be restored to greenfield status in 10 years.
Smith said he isn’t sure right now what aspects of decommissioning, if any, Vermont lawmakers wield jurisdiction over. He said, however, that the House “will take whatever measure we are legally authorized to do to push the issue.”
“And we will work with others to ensure the (decommissioning) fund is full, and work as quickly as possible to decommission the plant,” Smith said.
Unlike the bitter party divide over the issue of closing Vermont Yankee, sentiment over decommissioning doesn’t seem to be so partisan.
Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning said the Legislature should use whatever powers it can to expedite the process.
“I think the preference of all Vermonters would be that we return that site to what it was before Vermont Yankee was around,” Benning said.
While lawmakers won’t be able to meddle in issues of radiological safety, Benning said he hoped there will be alternate avenues for intervention, should the state and Entergy differ over the decommissioning timetable.
“I hope the state does have a role in trying to turn it to what it once was,” he said.
Lawmakers will also wrestle with the issue of money, and whether they can compel Entergy to fully underwrite a decommissioning fund that, at last count, had only $580 million of the potential $1 billion bill for the process.
Michael Dworkin, a former chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board, said he’s as concerned about the degree to which Entergy will remediate the site as he is about when the company will get around to doing it.
Dworkin said Entergy in its release said it plans to comply with federal decommissioning standards stipulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But he said those aren’t as rigorous as the standards lawmakers likely will want. Dworkin said he wasn’t sure what legal options lawmakers would have.
The Legislature will have to tread carefully, as evidenced by the invalidation earlier this year of two laws that sought to place control over the plant’s fate in the hands of state officials. A court found that Vermont had wrongly asserted jurisdiction in arenas over which the federal government had sole authority.
In the ruling earlier this month by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City upholding that decision, judges said lawmakers’ concern over decommissioning issues are “of little weight,” given the NRC’s purview over that process.
Benning said the Legislature will also have to grapple with fiscal issues stemming from the closure, including the loss of state property, corporate and generation taxes paid by Entergy, as well as the income taxes its employees paid.
Smith said the first order of business, legislatively, will be the fate of the plant workers and the Windham County economy. Smith said he’ll talk with the leaders of the House committees on energy and economic development “to determine whether it would be appropriate for us to have hearings this fall down in Windham County, to see if there is additional support we can provide.”