To paraphrase a famous reality TV personality: Nobody knew nuclear-plant decommissioning could be so complicated.
It’s been a year since nuclear industry newbie NorthStar Group Services announced its intention to buy the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear plant from energy giant Entergy Nuclear. By and large, the news of the potential sale was met with cheers — particularly since NorthStar said it planned to fast-track the decommissioning process, ridding the site of nuclear waste and turning it over for redevelopment decades sooner than was expected under Entergy’s plan.
The two flies in the ointment: Whether NorthStar, which has never decommissioned a nuclear plant before, has the resources to safely do it; and whether there’s enough money in the decommissioning fund to complete the job.
Entergy had planned to put the site in so-called SAFSTOR, a process that would take up to 60 years before the site is cleared, in part to allow enough time for the fund to grow to cover the decommissioning costs. NorthStar says it can do the job less expensively, and therefore doesn’t need that much time.
The sale and decommissioning plan must be approved by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission — virtually a given, to go by that agency’s past acquiescence to Entergy and other energy companies — and the Vermont Public Utility Commission.
The latter is a sticking point. Since Vermont Yankee was first proposed, the state has fought hard to maintain some say over the plant, repeatedly heading to federal court to protect that right.
Having such state oversight is particularly valuable, given the NRC’s willful impotence as a nuclear industry regulator and Entergy’s history of changing its mind on promises made to the state and the community regarding the Vernon power plant. But there are still times when state regulators seem caught up in technical issues and blind to the realities of having what’s now a nuclear waste site in the southeastern corner of the state.
Such is the demand that the decommissioning result in the land being returned to “residential quality” condition. Sure, in a vacuum, that would be the goal for any waste cleanup effort. But it ignores common sense.
As the rest of the site is dealt with, the future of the highly radioactive spent fuel remains in question: There isn’t any place for it to go, and Congress doesn’t seem in any great hurry to find one. So it may stay right in Vernon, in dry-cask storage, guarded night and day, for the foreseeable future.
What developer, then, is going to put big money into creating a subdivision of homes on the site? What real estate agent is going to want to tackle the challenge of selling homes there?
Further, the entire region is desperate to replace the economic engine that was Vermont Yankee. Not only did Entergy provide hundreds of high-paying jobs, the company has also been a source of millions of dollars in charitable giving over the decades. Ideally, the site would be turned into something that could host another large economic driver such as another power plant or corporate park.
At the same time, it’s been disappointing to see how quick NorthStar has been to try to hold the state hostage over the issue. The company certainly has the right to negotiate for the best deal it can get, within safety standards. But NorthStar CEO Scott State has reportedly said he’ll pull out of the deal if the firm doesn’t get its way on the “residential quality” issue — the implied threat being that the site would then sit, unusable, for decades longer. To again borrow verbiage from Washington, backing out of the sale might be deemed NorthStar’s “nuclear option.”
Everyone wants to see Vermont Yankee cleaned up and reused as soon as is practical. But state regulators shouldn’t be goaded into making bad decisions by that prospect. They must continue to hold any owner of the plant to strict standards, keeping common sense in mind.