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VY advisory panel seeks long-term support

VNDCAP, comprised mostly of volunteers, could use long-term financial, administrative backing from the state

BRATTLEBORO—Over the last 16 months, the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel has taken on some weighty, timely, and highly technical issues related to Vermont Yankee’s shutdown.

So far, the panel has done so on a shoestring budget, relying mostly on a mix of donated time and services. But that strategy might not work for the long term, and several key panel members are asking whether the state of Vermont should be taking on more financial and administrative responsibility for VNDCAP.

While it’s not yet clear whether the cash-strapped state can offer more support, panel Chair Kate O’Connor said her goal is to make VNDCAP “sustainable” while also maintaining its independence.

“We’re not talking hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars,” O’Connor said. “This is structured so it’s not a big bureaucracy, and that gives us the flexibility to do what we need to do.”

‘Making do with what people will give us’

The 19-member advisory panel was established by the Legislature in 2014 after Vermont Yankee owner Entergy announced it would stop producing power at the Vernon nuclear plant.

VNDCAP’s duties include advising the state, serving as “a conduit for public information and education,” and receiving reports and public comments related to the plant’s decommissioning.

By law, the panel must meet at least four times a year. But there has been no shortage of issues and questions in the wake of Vermont Yankee’s shutdown, and VNDCAP has been convening far more often than required.

The full panel met eight times in 2015, along with smaller subcommittee meetings scattered throughout the year, which adds up to a lot of administrative work.

Much of that work has fallen on O’Connor, who organizes meetings, prepares agendas, and circulates documents and comments. She also noted that Entergy has been providing free photocopying services for the voluminous documents available at VNDCAP meetings.

The state Department of Public Service does support some VNDCAP activities. For instance, the panel’s citizen appointees get $50 per meeting, and O’Connor said she was reimbursed for mileage for a conference she attended.

But for the most part, O’Connor said the panel is “making do with what people will give us,” and she doesn’t think that’s a feasible model for the years to come.

On the administrative side, she said “other boards and commissions in the state have somebody to help them, and we really need that if we’re going to be doing this work.”

From a financial standpoint, some say future nuclear decommissioning discussions will require more experts — some of whom won’t travel to Brattleboro or Vernon for free. Chris Campany, who heads the Windham Regional Commission and also sits on VNDCAP, said the panel needs “resources to access professional support.”

“There may be times when VNDCAP would want the benefit of access to professionals who can offer a technical or professional opinion that is independent of the state or Entergy,” Campany said.

Attention on spent-fuel pad, other issues

The panel has not yet offered a detailed proposal for what resources it might request from the state. Lately, VNDCAP has focused on the contentious process of crafting advisory opinions on topics such as the location of a second spent-fuel pad at Vermont Yankee.

“Because everything’s been so busy, we haven’t moved as fast as we’d like to on this,” O’Connor said.

But she, Campany, and Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia — also a VNDCAP member — have met to discuss the resource issue. And they will be revisiting it soon with the goal of keeping VNDCAP going for the long run.

There is no statutory end point for the advisory panel, and Vermont Yankee is headed into a federally sanctioned program called SAFSTOR, under which decommissioning can take up to 60 years.

Campany points out that Recchia “will presumably, at some point, be otherwise employed.” And he is concerned that future VNDCAP chairs might not be able to devote the time and effort that O’Connor has.

“To some extent, the organization has grown up around existing professional relationships, and generally friendly and collaborative relationships at that,” Campany said.

“We need to structure support for the operation of the panel in a way that is not reliant upon those individuals involved with it now, and that reflects the work that lies ahead of us,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #338 (Wednesday, January 6, 2016). This story appeared on page C4.

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