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Candidates weigh future of Vermont Yankee

Contenders for governor — three Democrats and two Republicans — say state should have role in decommissioning process

BRATTLEBORO—Over the first several years of his tenure, Gov. Peter Shumlin made no secret of his desire to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.

And since the Vernon facility stopped producing power at the end of 2014, Shumlin’s administration has repeatedly challenged plant owner Entergy’s decommissioning plans — often without much success, given that the process is mostly federally regulated.

It will be up to Shumlin’s successor to set the tone for the state’s interactions with Entergy starting in January 2017. In interviews in advance of the Aug. 9 primary, five gubernatorial candidates discussed their proposed approaches to monitoring and intervening in Vermont Yankee decommissioning.

They also shared their thoughts on the economic impacts of the plant’s closure and the potential for redeveloping the site, which boasts extensive electrical and railroad infrastructure but is burdened by stored spent fuel that may remain in Vernon for generations.

• Democrat Matt Dunne said he will be “absolutely committed to holding Entergy accountable for doing the complete and total decommissioning that we would expect of them.”

Dunne, a Hartland resident and former state senator and Google executive, pledged to “personally engage with the company to let them know we are serious.” But he also said he would expect to work closely with Vermont’s congressional delegation, given the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s authority over radiological matters at the plant.

Dunne acknowledged that the state’s regulatory role in Vermont Yankee decommissioning is limited. But he pointed to the state’s role in exposing tritium leaks at the plant several years ago as evidence that, “Vermont, with some focus, can be as powerful as any entity.”

Vermont Yankee is headed into SAFSTOR, a period of dormancy under which decommissioning can take up to 60 years. But there has been much speculation about the future of the plant site, and Dunne mentioned several possibilities including a “sustainable biomass” plant and a data center for a technology company.

“We need an economy that works for all of Vermont,” Dunne said. “Those of us who advocated for Entergy to shut down a leaking nuke plant also need to be committed to making sure we create jobs that can be there for future generations.”

• Democrat Peter Galbraith wants to push for “the most rapid decommissioning” possible at Vermont Yankee.

The Townshend resident — who represented Windham County for two terms in the state Senate — said his priority would be lobbying for “the removal of radioactive material first to dry cask storage and then away from the site, and then the rehabilitation of the site for other purposes.”

To accomplish those goals, Galbraith said he would employ “a bit of diplomacy as well as using whatever resources the state can use to pressure Entergy to do the right thing.” On the diplomacy front, he noted that “perhaps with a different personality [in the governor’s office], there might be more opportunity for engagement.”

Galbraith said the hundreds of jobs lost at Vermont Yankee cannot be replaced, and there are no “magic solutions” to filling the hole the plant’s shutdown left in the regional economy. But he believes there will be opportunities, and he pledged to be “a governor who’s going to be really engaged in Windham County.”

“Given all the transmission facilities that are there, the question is whether there’s an alternative energy-generating facility that could be located there or whether there’s an individual that would find that infrastructure of great value,” Galbraith said.

• Republican Bruce Lisman, a retired businessman from Shelburne, said he has read news stories about Vermont Yankee decommissioning but hasn’t spent enough time on the issue to have any detailed plans for the state’s role in the process.

Lisman said he believes the state “has an ongoing responsibility both for public safety and the safety of communities generally. If decommissioning intersects with that, then [state officials] have a role.”

Turning to economics, Lisman lamented what he called missed opportunities for Vermont to retain more of the plant’s departing engineers.

Entergy has said the company offered job-hunting assistance to furloughed employees and sought to place some of those staffers at other plants. But Lisman placed blame both with the company and with the state, which he says “seemed less than engaged on this issue.”

Lisman said he would have pushed to get the University of Vermont involved in helping ex-Yankee staff to find new opportunities here. “We should have had a grant go to UVM so they could meet with all those [Vermont Yankee] employees ... that was an opportunity lost,” he said.

• Democrat Sue Minter compared the regulation of Vermont Yankee decommissioning to her previous work fighting for federal disaster dollars as the state’s Irene Recovery Officer.

“It’s going to take an ongoing battle to make sure the feds are paying attention to us,” said Minter, a Waterbury resident who most recently served as the state’s transportation secretary. “If the governor is not engaged as [the state’s] advocate, I think we will lose.”

Minter said she has been in touch with prominent Vermont Yankee critic Arnie Gundersen and said she is “very concerned” about the possibility that tainted groundwater from the plant may end up in the Connecticut River.

“I understand that it’s not an easy battle, and we may not win them all,” Minter said. “But you can be sure that this governor will fight to ensure the safest long-term outcome that we are able to with the decommissioning process.”

Minter said she hasn’t given much thought to future redevelopment of the property given the pollutants present there. But she did note that she would like to incentivize the siting of solar arrays on former industrial sites.

• Republican and current Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said he “wouldn’t want to continue with a failed strategy” on Vermont Yankee, adding that he would try to establish better communication with Entergy.

There is precedent for such communication, as the state in late 2013 negotiated a detailed shutdown settlement agreement with the company. But that agreement left the question of site-restoration standards unanswered, while making it clear that the state has authority over that issue after radiological decommissioning is complete.

There also will likely be continuing state interaction with Entergy and the NRC on other regulatory issues.

“I’ve made my political life on trying to facilitate communication and trying to get results as we move forward,” said Scott, a Berlin resident. “I would sit down with [Entergy], try to establish parameters, try to reach conclusions, common areas of interest and try to get a fair deal to protect Vermont.”

As for site re-use, Scott said that’s a complicated question due to the likely long-term presence of spent nuclear fuel. He said he would consider pursuing installation of “an innovative power source” at the site if it could be done safely.

“However, given the timeline to store the [nuclear] byproducts, innovation in the energy field may lead us away from traditional power generation before then,” Scott said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #367 (Wednesday, July 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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