Since Entergy Nuclear announced in 2013 it would shutter the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., which it deemed no longer an economic asset, debate has centered around three issues: what to do with the high-level nuclear waste stored on-site; whether the decommissioning fund is adequate for restoring the site to a usable state; and how to deal with the loss of what has, over the years, been one of the region’s largest economic engines.
Last week, the sale of the plant — from Entergy to New York-based NorthStar Group for a whopping $1,000 — was finalized. NorthStar assumes Entergy’s debt and liability, including the responsibility for decommissioning the plant.
The sale is good news in that NorthStar plans to fast-track the decommissioning, while Entergy had indicated it might put the site into safe storage (“SAFSTOR”) for decades before starting to dismantle it. The reason, no doubt, is financial: NorthStar is betting it can do the job for less than the $500 million or so that’s in the decommissioning fund.
That raises an obvious issue: If doing the job cheaply is the company’s incentive, will it be done right? Fears of such a dynamic have been allayed to a degree since almost all the major detractors of the plant — including local anti-nuclear groups, Native American tribes, state regulators, local officials and others — signed off on the deal, saying their concerns had been met. Plus, the Vermont Public Service Board, environmental department and natural resources agency will continue to oversee the project, along with the NRC.
So the hope here is that the decommissioning itself will go as planned, leading to a usable site in a decade or so. Also notable is that this is NorthStar’s first venture into decommissioning a commercial nuclear plant, a business it clearly hopes to expand. If it screws up in Vernon, getting future projects approved will be difficult.
As for the highly radioactive spent-fuel rods being stored in concrete casks on the site, that’s really out of NorthStar’s hands (the company says it has a partner capable of disposing of lower-level waste). The federal Department of Energy is responsible for dealing with high-level waste, according to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In 1987, that act was amended to create a storage site beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but the plan derailed when Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., became the Senate Majority Leader, and has never been funded. The DOE remains responsible for all high-level waste, but has no solution. It’s therefore allowed more and more waste to be stored at existing and shut-down plants. Hopefully, Congress can find a long-term solution and the roughly 3,000 spent-fuel rods will leave Vernon.
As for replacing Vermont Yankee as an economic engine, that’s a tall order. At the height of its operation, the plant employed hundreds of area residents, many of them highly paid engineers and technicians. Entergy contributed millions of its considerable revenues to area charitable and educational causes. And it bought from area suppliers, driving more local business.
A 2014 report on the economic effects of the plant’s closure put the loss at $480 million in annual economic activity in southwestern New Hampshire and southeastern Vermont. It’s unlikely that can be replaced via a combination of residential and commercial ventures at the site. But to its credit, as it wound down operations, Entergy worked with local officials to offset the hit to the local economy, including a deal with the state of Vermont to pump $10 million into the Windham County area for future development. A much smaller amount came to this side of the river. With the seed funds provided and smart planning and investment in workforce development, perhaps some of the economic loss to the region can be offset to some degree.
In any case, the sale of the facility marks a major milestone in what has long been a contentious relationship between the power plant, its supporters and those wary of its potential dangers and existing environmental effects. That the end of the saga appears to be within view is sad for some, pleasing for others, but notable to all.