The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has signed off on the proposed sale of the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, Vt., from Entergy Nuclear Vermont to New York-based NorthStar Group Services Inc.
NorthStar immediately filed the paperwork with the Vermont Public Utilities Commission, the final hurdle in the sale and decommissioning. If the state OKs the plan — and it’s expected to, since it released a memorandum of understanding regarding the project earlier this year that set out its requirements — the sale could be completed before the year is out, and cleanup of the site could be finished decades earlier than if Entergy is left to do the job.
It’s been just over five years since Entergy unexpectedly announced the impending closure of the 585-megawatt plant. Operation ceased at the end of 2014, and Entergy outlined two options for decommissioning the site: starting work immediately, finishing within a decade or so; or putting the facility in SAFSTOR, essentially sealing it off for up to six decades before acting. Entergy eventually decided on SAFSTOR.
Two years ago, Entergy announced it had decided to sell the site to NorthStar, which planned to dismantle the plant and haul away all but the most-radioactive material by as early as 2026. The future of that high-level fuel, which has already been removed from the core building and put in dry-cask storage on site, 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, guarded night and day, for the foreseeable future. That, however, isn’t an issue NorthStar, Entergy or the state can deal with in this agreement; it’s a federal issue to resolve.
The state, at first, seemed skeptical of NorthStar’s plans, so the memorandum of understanding came as a surprise, signed by state and local officials, local Native American tribes, anti-nuclear advocates and others designated as having a legal say in the matter. Only one intervenor objected: The Conservation Law Foundation cited several issues with the deal, including transparency, letting Entergy off the hook financially if something should go wrong, having adequate insurance for the project and, simply put, money.
Money is both the reason for the sale and among the biggest concerns regarding it. Entergy, which underfunded the decommissioning fund for years, according to the state and others, wanted to take the long path to decommissioning in large part to allow that fund to grow before starting the main work. NorthStar is paying Entergy $1 for Vermont Yankee, and in return will receive Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund. In the past, estimates of what decommissioning will cost have ranged as high as $800 million. NorthStar is gambling that it can do the job for less than the $570 million or so that’s in the fund now, and pocket most of the rest.
CLF’s lawyers worry the firm is too optimistic, and that taxpayers will be on the hook if the process costs more than expected. There’s also the question of whether NorthStar can handle the job; its experience is in urban demolition, though it has decommissioned much smaller nuclear facilities at universities, and is partnered with a company licensed to dispose of low-level nuclear waste.
The NRC’s approval was expected but does put the onus solely on the state to decide if the deal in place does enough to protect the public and ensure the project gets done. Given Vermont’s long history of taking such responsibilities seriously, we’re hopeful the PUC will adequately examine CLF’s warnings and that approval of the sale can proceed — if warranted.
It’s the result everyone is rooting for, but that can’t override the state’s obligation to protect its citizens.