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Entergy drops bid to amend license

Company now calls rule requiring 30-day advance notification for withdrawals from VY decommissioning trust fund a ‘manageable administrative burden’

VERNON—Vermont Yankee owner Entergy has dropped its bid to withdraw cash from the plant’s decommissioning trust fund without first notifying the federal government.

It’s a victory for the state of Vermont, which had challenged Entergy’s attempt to amend its license and eliminate a required 30-day advance notice for fund withdrawals. In late August, the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had granted the state a hearing on the matter.

The company is not admitting defeat on the substance of that debate: In a statement issued Sept. 23, Entergy spokesman Martin Cohn wrote that “Entergy does not concede any merit to the state of Vermont’s assertions.”

But Entergy decided to stop the fight “after weighing the substantial costs of pursuing approval of the [license amendment] request through litigation against the modest benefit of alleviating the administrative burden of continuing to provide the notifications,” Cohn wrote.

Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia termed the announcement “very good news,” though it resolves just one of many disputes between the state and Entergy.

“This is a very big victory, but it was an obvious one,” Recchia told The Commons. “If [Entergy] had been thinking this through, I think they would have tried to work with us on making a settlement decision.”

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell noted that, “if we had allowed Entergy to amend its license, no one would know when it was taking money out of the decommissioning trust fund or how much it was taking.”

“Because we instead worked with the Department of Public Service to challenge Entergy’s request, we will now get that information — this month, next month, and even 60 years from now,” Sorrell said in a prepared statement.

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power at the end of 2014, and Entergy is taking the Vernon plant into SAFSTOR, an extended period of dormancy that allows decommissioning to extend up to 60 years after shutdown.

But there is hope that the job could be completed sooner: A 2013 shutdown settlement agreement between the state and Entergy says that “to facilitate the prompt economic redevelopment of the VY station site, the decommissioning process should occur without unreasonable delay, as soon as there are sufficient funds in the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust.”

So that trust fund is critical, as Entergy projects it will need $1.2 billion to fully clean up the site. The fund at last report held about $636 million.

Ongoing disputes

There are ongoing disputes regarding Entergy’s proposed uses for the trust fund: For instance, state officials don’t think the company should be able to spend trust-fund money on spent-fuel management or property tax payments. Entergy’s Sept. 23 news doesn’t change any of that.

What it affects, however, is a year-long debate over whether Entergy should be required to give the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission a 30-day notice before taking money from the fund.

The company argues that such notification is unnecessary, while state officials have maintained that advance notice allows the government and the public to scrutinize — and possibly stop — any improper trust-fund withdrawals.

Though NRC staff already had approved elimination of the 30-day notices, that couldn’t take effect until Entergy’s license was amended.

On Sept. 22, Entergy abandoned that amendment request, with Yankee Site Vice President Chris Wamser writing in a letter to the NRC that “Entergy has determined that maintaining the existing license conditions represents a manageable administrative burden.”

Entergy’s motion asks for the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board’s permission to withdraw its license-amendment request “without conditions, and to dismiss this proceeding without prejudice.”

The document says neither the NRC nor the state opposes withdrawal of the amendment request. But Entergy also says the state “intends to file a response opposing unconditional withdrawal of the [amendment] and seeking instead that the board impose conditions on the withdrawal.”

First, Entergy is concerned that the state wants “substantial additional detail” included in the company’s future trust-fund disbursement requests. Currently, the company sends a letter to the NRC mentioning only the maximum amount it wants to withdraw during a specific time period.

Recchia confirmed that the state will be asking for more detail in Entergy’s 30-day notices. “The reason we are asking for this is so that we can get factual information on proposed [trust fund] disbursements in advance,” he said.

Also, Entergy says the state has suggested that it still may want the company to provide additional “disclosures relevant to this proceeding” in spite of the fact that the license-amendment process is ending.

Not surprisingly, Entergy contends Vermont has no standing to request either of those conditions. The company argues that the state would need to show “legal injury” or even “bad faith on the part of the applicant” in order to ask for the federal government to impose new conditions on Entergy’s Vermont Yankee license.

There has been no such legal injury or bad faith, Entergy says. And the company says dropping its license-amendment request essentially gives the state what it had wanted.

“This withdrawal, prior to a hearing, will conserve substantial resources of the parties, the staff and the board,” Entergy’s motion says. “The withdrawal effectively imposes the very remedy that the state requested in this proceeding – that Entergy continues to be bound by its current license conditions regarding the decommissioning trust. Placing conditions on the withdrawal would be contrary to established commission precedent.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #325 (Wednesday, September 30, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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