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New England Coalition shifts its focus from closure to decommissioning of Vermont Yankee

In PSB hearings, group presses Entergy to commit to an immediate clean-up of the site

BRATTLEBORO—If you thought the New England Coalition would be in a celebratory mood in the wake of the recent decision by Entergy to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant late next year, you would be mistaken.

The Brattleboro-based antinuclear group realizes that its work has only just begun.

“We’re on a mission, a strategic mission, to make sure that the plant is safely closed down and decommissioned,” said NEC staffer Clay Turnbull at the group’s 41st annual meeting on Sept. 28 at the River Garden.

Part of that work is NEC’s role in the Vermont Public Service Board’s ongoing hearings regarding a certificate of public good (CPG) from the Public Service Board to operate Vermont Yankee.

VY is currently operating under a CPG that expired last year.

Entergy originally told the PSB that it sought to operate the plant until March 21, 2032, when its current operating license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission expired.

However, on Aug. 27, just after Entergy announced it would close VY before the end of the fourth quarter in 2014, the company resubmitted its application to the PSB, seeking authority to operate through Dec. 31, 2014.

The main difference between the two petitions, according to NEC technical advisor Ray Shadis, is that the original CPR application addressed immediate dismantling and decommissioning after VY closed. In the resubmitted application, Entergy wants to put the reactor site in a state known as SAFSTOR, which would leave the plant mothballed for decades until the company has enough money to pay for dismantling the plant.

Shadis, who appeared before the PSB at a Oct. 1 hearing, said afterward that he wants the PSB to take additional testimony regarding the SAFSTOR plan, on top of the 22 days of hearings that were held earlier this year on the CPG.

“Entergy has changed the rule of the game by pushing for a 60-year delay in decommissioning,” Shadis said. “They had always focused on running for another 20 years.”

Shadis said the NEC supports the PSB granting a one-year CPG to Entergy, but only if Entergy commits to a prompt decommissioning process.

On Tuesday, the PSB accepted a proposal by the state Department of Public Service, one of the interested parties in the case, which will allow the parties to submit one final filing to address Entergy’s plans to close the plant, “in which the parties may offer proposed findings and rulings,” according to the letter from DPS Director for Public Advocacy Geoffrey Commons. Parties have until Oct. 9 to request that additional testimony be allowed.

Hot topic

Decommissioning was a hot topic at the Sept. 28 NEC meeting, as well as the subject of the talk by keynote speaker Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of Radioactive Waste Management Associates of Bellows Falls.

Resnikoff was involved in the decommissioning of the West Valley, N.Y., nuclear reprocessing plant and the Maxey Flats, Ky., nuclear waste landfill.

He said Entergy has nowhere near the amount of money needed to cover the cost of dismantling the plant if it chooses immediate decontamination of the site, or DECON, in Nuclear Regulatory Commission argot.

The SAFSTOR strategy has many flaws, said Resnikoff.

First, there is the underfunding of the decommissioning fund. The consortium of New England electric utilities that once owned Vermont Yankee had $247 million in the fund in 1999. It kicked in $256.88 million from 2000 to 2002 to bring the fund up to just more than $500 million.

Entergy bought the plant in 2002. It has not put any money into the decommissioning fund since then. Coincidently, Resnikoff said, the estimated cost of decommissioning Vermont Yankee somehow decreased, from the $816.6 million the original owners estimated, to $614 million today.

Resnikoff said that the lower estimated cost of decommissioning is due mainly to two factors — Entergy has less money set aside in the decommissioning fund, and a subsidiary, TLG Services, has been providing the estimates for the firm to decommission VY.

“I’m greatly concerned not only about whether [Entergy] has enough money in the fund, but also whether waiting 60 years will put them into an even-deeper financial hole,” he said.

He gave as an example what happened at the Connecticut Yankee nuclear power plant in Haddam Neck, Conn. It was commissioned in 1968 and ceased electrical production in 1996. Decommissioning began in 1998 and was not complete until 2007.

The decommissioning cost for Connecticut Yankee ultimately surpassed $1 billion, or double what was first estimated. As that plant was owned by utility companies, much of the extra cost was borne by ratepayers.

Connecticut Yankee produced electricity for 18 years, compared to the more than four decades that VY has been running, so the chances are good that it will cost more than expected to decommission the plant, Resnikoff said.

Also, as VY is what’s known as a “merchant plant,” which sells its power in a competitive spot market, Resnikoff said it has no pool of ratepayers standing to assume the extra cost of decommissioning.

“If [Entergy] comes up short, it’s the taxpayers of Vermont that will be stuck with the bill,” he said.

Resnikoff said VY should do a site survey now, before the plant shuts down, to determine the extent of the need for cleaning. He added that Entergy should commit to a safe, careful, and prompt dismantlement of the plant, and commit to taking full responsibility for all the costs of decommissioning.

Follow the rules

Paul Blanch, a nuclear engineer turned industry whistleblower from West Hartford, Conn., stressed to NEC members the need to ensure that the NRC closely monitor the decommissioning process in Vernon and that it enforce the applicable regulations.

But, Blanch said, the problem is that the NRC “doesn’t just lack the ability to enforce regulatory compliance; it doesn’t know which regulations are applicable.

“Vermont Yankee is entering a new phase next year,” he said. “It would be worth your while to contact the NRC and have them outline each regulation applicable to VY during decommissioning.”

Blanch, a veteran of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear program, worked for Northeast Utilities in the 1980s and 1990s and was involved in the decommissioning of Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts, Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee, and the Millstone 1 reactor in Waterford, Conn.

He said that one common denominator with all these closings was that nobody knew which rules applied to the process.

And another?

“All of these plants shut down when it became too expensive to comply with the rules that the NRC had,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #223 (Wednesday, October 2, 2013).

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