You don’t need to be a rocket scientist

The Nuclear Regulatory Agency is ineffective, but it’s the only regulator we’ve got. Citizens should make their voices heard when it comes to town this month.

BRATTLEBORO — The decommissioning of Vermont Yankee will be one of the most significant undertakings in the state's history. We need to pay at least as much attention to decommissioning as we are paying to the economic impacts of Yankee's closure and who gets how much money from what fund.

On Feb. 19, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will be in Brattleboro to hold its one public hearing on Entergy's decommissioning plan, the Post Shut down Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR). This coming Monday, an educational forum at 6 p.m. at Marlboro Graduate Center, “The NRC and You,” is an opportunity to learn more before the NRC public hearing.

There is no doubt that decommissioning is a lengthy, complex process. The nuclear industry and the NRC would like us to believe that it is so technical that state officials and citizens can't understand it and should simply trust them.

But you don't need to be a rocket scientist to identify some holes in Entergy's plan.

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For example, given Entergy's record of broken promises, we don't buy the company's claim that it will clean it up promptly once enough money's in the bank.

We don't buy their claim that the federal Department of Energy will take the radioactive waste away to a storage facility by 2050, when no facility has yet been built and no plans are on the horizon.

We don't buy the claim that moving 900 tons of spent fuel out of the fuel pool and into dry-cask storage is so safe that the emergency planning zone can be shrunk to the footprint of the site, leaving two schools and more than a dozen towns in three states unprotected.

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There is no special or separate license for a closed reactor or one being decommissioned. The operating license covers it all, according to the NRC.

This policy concerns the state of Vermont. Radiological monitoring is the same as if it were operating. There is no new environmental impact statement (EIS) based on current conditions at the reactor; the same EIS written before the plant went on-line 42 years ago is still in effect.

The EIS says the socioeconomic impact on a region is larger in a rural area and must be addressed differently, but Entergy's PSDAR does not.

The NRC and Entergy are in new territory by decommissioning a reactor that isn't owned by a utility. Vermont Yankee is a test case and will have a sharp learning curve.

Merchant reactors like VY have no utility ratepayers who can be billed extra to pay for decommissioning if things get financially tight. No one knows what will happen if a merchant reactor owner walks away or goes bankrupt.

There are layers of limited liability corporations (LLCs) between the parent company in New Orleans and Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee. If ENVY goes under, who is left holding the bag?

This is not idle speculation.

Entergy's finances are not the greatest. Five Entergy plants - half of its fleet - are merchant plants. Yankee is closed. FitzPatrick, Palisades, and Pilgrim are all in trouble. Indian Point has been operating without an NRC license since September 2013. The nuclear industry as a whole is fighting for its life against natural gas and renewables. Vermont Yankee could be a test case for a collapsing industry.

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When Entergy purchased Vermont Yankee in 2002, it made two big mistakes.

One was in buying the reactor at all. “This has been a bad investment for us,” Barrett Green told the Associated Press. The Entergy finance executive recommended both that Entergy buy the plant and later that it be closed.

The second mistake? Entergy didn't get that citizens in Vermont pay attention. In the long run, that was Yankee's undoing.

From 2002 to 2012, 51 towns voted to shut Yankee down; citizens took to the streets year after year, all saying shut it down; a governor and legislature were elected who said shut it down.

Our utility companies saw the writing on the wall. Entergy was left swinging in the wind, without any Vermont contracts, competing on the open market. It lost a bundle. Two years later, it announced the closure.

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Paying attention makes a difference. This coming Monday, Feb. 9, the Safe and Green Campaign and the Citizens' Awareness Network (CAN) will host “The NRC and You” to prepare for the NRC Public Hearing on decommissioning 10 days later. This educational forum begins at 6 p.m. at the Marlboro Graduate Center in downtown Brattleboro.

Arnie Gundersen and Deb Katz of CAN will give presentations and answer questions.

Gundersen co-authored the Dept. of Energy's first decommissioning handbook, served on Vermont's Public Oversight Panel in 2008, and has written reports and testified on Yankee decommissioning before the state Legislature.

Katz and CAN were instrumental in the closures of Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, and Millstone Unit 1 reactors and won a lawsuit against the NRC over the illegal decommissioning of the Rowe reactor, the violation of citizen hearing rights, and EPA regulations.

The NRC might be an ineffective regulator, but it's the only one we've got. Its rules on decommissioning give only advisory status to the state and public. The state of Vermont is doing what it can with meager resources to confront Entergy and the NRC.

The NRC needs to hear from those who will live with the consequences of decommissioning. That's us - not Entergy.

We can't know how long the company will be around, but the cleanup of Vermont Yankee will affect our communities for generations to come. Go to the NRC's public hearing - if only to say that you have a right to make your voice heard.