BRATTLEBORO—Three-ring binders filled with documents concerning the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor surround Tom Buchanan. He flips through the tabbed and highlighted pages looking for a statement Entergy made in one of its many dockets before the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB).
Jim Matteau watches Buchanan from a nearby chair, arms crossed, and smiles.
Matteau, the former executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, recalls that in more than one PSB hearing, Entergy’s lawyers would attend with reams of documents. Matteau, however, would struggle as he asked questions.
Buchanan, then a WRC commissioner from the town of Londonderry and former chair of the WRC Energy Committee, would push a notebook with the neccessary information under Matteau’s nose and save the day.
“If it’s in a document, I can find it,” Buchanan says.
And he finds what he’s looking for in a Site Assessment Study (SAS) released by Entergy in October.
An innovation award
In August, the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation awarded its 2014 Innovation Award to the WRC for planning in anticipation of the eventual closure of VY.
NADO is a Washington, D.C.-based association that promotes programs and policies that strengthen regions through cooperation, program delivery, and comprehensive strategies.
The WRC, in turn, honored Buchanan and Matteau at its Dec. 2 commission meeting for spearheading the commission’s post-VY work.
Matteau, a former WRC executive director, and Buchanan,, said they never expected to build their extensive historical knowledge of as complex a case as VY.
The commission has remained neutral on whether the nuclear plant should close. Still, it seems to be an outlier in studying the economic ramifications of VY’s closure.
Economic planning around the eventual closure of a region’s prime industry is something few communities routinely undertake.
Last year, Entergy announced it would close the plant despite receiving a 20-year license extension from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The plant has entered its “coast-down phase” as its reactor fuel reaches the end of its life. The company expects to shut down the reactor in January. The first wave of layoffs is slated for Jan. 19.
Buchanan points to a paragraph in Entergy’s SAS.
In an interview with The Commons, site vice president Christopher J. Wamser had said that constructing a second pad to hold dry cask storage canisters filled with spent fuel within feet of the existing plant would not inhibit decommissioning.
“That’s completely at odds with their historical statements and their recent Site Assessment Study,” Buchanan says.
Buchanan reads from page 44 the SAS: “At the time decontamination and dismantlement are scheduled to start, ENVY [Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee] assumes all spent fuel will have been removed from the site and therefore will not affect the decommissioning activities.”
“If DOE’s [the U.S. Department of Energy] removal of spent fuel is delayed beyond the assumed completion date or the decontamination and dismantlement activities are accelerated and start before the removal of the fuel, the presence of the fuel may inhibit demolition or restrict the methodologies available for demolishing the Reactor Building and/or structures adjacent to the stored spent fuel,” the SAS quote concludes.
The lesson, Buchanan suggests: Don’t underestimate the power of a deep paper trail. WRC commissioners have read documents carefully and culled information for more than a decade.
As the state changes administrators, Entergy delays actions, and as issues become more complex, people lose sight of information, Buchanan says. As a result, they don’t notice discrepancies between promises Entergy made then and now, he says.
According to Buchanan, Entergy has discussed site restoration, which included capping and leaving in place tunnels big enough for people to walk through, rather than digging them up.
Entergy has also discussed breaking up and leaving in place some underground pipes.
Leaving such pipes and tunnels or other chemicals on the site could, at the least, inhibit future site use. At worst it could lead to the spread of chemicals to the river or beyond VY’s boundaries, the men say.
“The story of hazardous waste is really the story of water moving around,” Matteau says.
According to Buchanan and Matteau, the WRC in 2007 launched its studies into the regional economic, fiscal, socioeconomic, and cultural consequences of VY’s eventual closure. The commission’s analyses were part of its participation in the Public Service Board’s Certificate of Public Good (CPG) deliberations.
“[The WRC] recognized the important economic, fiscal, physical, and cultural presence of the plant and the fact that at some point, due to economics, design life, or regulatory constraints, the plant would eventually cease operations,” a WRC press release reads.
Studying VY in general started for the commission in 2002, when Entergy bought the plant from its previous owners, a consortium of electric utilities.
The WRC has stood as an intervenor in the VY-related hearings since then.
People have often assumed the commission opposes VY because its representatives ask difficult questions, Matteau says, adding that driving to Montpelier to give an uncritical A-OK is a poor use of community resources.
Commissioners studying VY have come from all sides of the issue, Buchanan says.
The commission culled information that formed the basis of its post-VY planning from evidence presented at PSB hearings. Data included effects on regional employment and income, taxes, and charitable contributions. The commission also used the PSB dockets to develop a picture of decommissioning, spent-fuel management, and site restoration conditions that would be in the best interest of the region.
Other organizations, such as the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC), based their own post-VY planning on the WRC’s work.
When Entergy announced earlier this year that it would close VY, the WRC had information ready for the tri-state region to understand the issues around decommissioning.
Leading on post-VY planning
“It wasn’t brilliance on our part,” Matteau says when asked why the WRC has led on post-VY planning. “It was something we felt responsible in becoming involved with.”
Matteau says that, in his opinion, Vermont’s unique regulatory process through the PSB allows for direct public involvement in the decision-making process.
Buchanan says the commission decided early that it only wanted to focus its efforts on VY in the here and now; it had no desire to take a stand on nuclear power in general.
The commission also realized early that decommissioning could become a prolonged process with its own planning considerations. This brought the commission to focus on the economic and community impacts of the plant’s closure.
Radiological safety at nuclear plants is the sole purview of the NRC. In general, communities are allowed to talk about reliability.
Matteau explains that the WRC has argued that safety and reliability are intertwined. If the plant shuts down for safety reasons it’s not generating power — and that has an economic impact. The plant, then, is not reliable.
It’s as if the federal government has told communities they can’t talk about bananas but they can talk about yellow fruit, he says.
According to Matteau, the commission wanted to discover what method of decommissioning would prove least painful in a transition, and chose prompt decommissioning because it provides the community with “a slope rather than a cliff.”
Entergy started talking about SAFSTOR — a decommissioning process that can take up to 60 years — years ago, Buchanan says.
“[Prompt] DECON made sense; SAFSTOR didn’t,” Matteau says.
According to Buchanan, Entergy argued that it wanted to use SAFSTOR because it was less expensive, generates less hazardous waste, and would provide good employment over a long period.
The commission tested those arguments and “found they were all false,” Buchanan says.
For example, Buchanan notes, a lot can change in 60 years, such as environmental regulations and standards and disposal of hazardous waste. These changes can drive up costs.
Both men note that VY is an industrial site with more than 40 years of history. Along with radiological waste, there may be chemicals, asbestos, or other materials on the land.
Matteau adds that another argument for SAFSTOR has focused on the cost structures of merchant plants like VY.
The argument goes that merchant plants don’t have ratepayers to cover the initial costs of prompt decommissioning, he says. An alternative argument is that Entergy’s stockholders can pay up front.
“Which is a good argument too,” Matteau says.
Focusing on VY planning has cost the commission time and resources, Matteau says. He explains WRC staff members who picked up projects while he attended PSB hearings deserve a lot of credit.
Still, he says, the studies have paid off.
According to Executive Director Chris Campany, who succeeded Matteau in 2010, “We empowered the conversation.”
The WRC built its post-VY planning foundation on what was best for the region over the long haul, Campany says.
Matteau adds that the WRC insisted the conversation take place on the record. (“If it’s not going to be public, what are we doing it for?” he says.)
Matteau says he never signed any non-disclosure forms from Entergy during PSB hearings.
When asked what issues around VY the community should keep an eye on, Buchanan says, “Keep an awareness that nothing is settled, that this is a work in progress.”
Buchanan says that “what site restoration really means” has yet to be resolved.
According to the men, Entergy at one time promised to restore VY to a green field. What is proposed now is not that.
Matteau adds that questions still exist around the decommissioning fund, such as what expenses Entergy can bill to it, when will it grow large enough to fund decommissioning, and how storing the spent fuel on site will drive costs.
Both men said that it’s important that the community quickly set standards for site restoration and decommissioning.
“We can’t go back in time,” Matteau says. “All we can do is play the ball where it lies.”