Citizens panel wants help to deal with Vermont Yankee sale

VERNON — The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel met 19 times before Nov. 8, 2016.

But everything changed that day, when Entergy announced a tentative deal to sell Vermont Yankee to NorthStar Group Services, a New York-based decommissioning company.

Given NorthStar's plan to greatly accelerate decommissioning of the Vernon plant, some are wondering whether a panel that's supposed to advise state government and “serve as a conduit for public information” can do its job without additional resources - most likely from the state.

Panel members are working to come up with a specific financial request. Some say the biggest need may be money to hire independent experts who can evaluate claims made by NorthStar and Entergy.

As things now stand, “we're basically left doing a lot of heavy lifting on our own,” panel Chair Kate O'Connor said.

The advisory panel was formed by the Legislature in 2014. Designed to focus on decommissioning, the 19-member group began meeting a few months before Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee.

In a recent report to a joint meeting of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee and the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, O'Connor detailed the panel's activities during the past few years.

Though the statute creating the advisory panel requires just four meetings a year, the group has held 21 meetings so far. In addition to hearing reports, asking questions, and soliciting public comment, panel members have in some cases weighed in on decommissioning issues.

In trying to raise public awareness of decommissioning, “I think, by the number of meetings that we've had and the public input that we have, we've been doing a good job at that,” O'Connor said. “That's very important to us.”

Much of the panel's work, however, had been based on the assumption that actual decommissioning was a long way off. Entergy has been preparing Vermont Yankee for SAFSTOR, a dormancy program under which cleanup could take 60 years.

In contrast, NorthStar has promised to have most of the job done by 2030 at the latest.

The company needs state and federal permission to purchase Vermont Yankee, and those reviews already are under way. The question for the advisory panel is how much the group can participate in a relatively fast-moving, highly technical review - and furthermore, how well the panel will be able to advise state government and the public regarding the sale.

Though the advisory panel was created by the Legislature, members say there's no line item in the state budget to support it. State statute says only the Vermont Public Service Department will provide resources “as the commissioner may consider appropriate on request of the panel from time to time.”

The department has provided some important administrative and technical assistance, O'Connor said. And Entergy - which has two representatives on the panel - also has pitched in.

But Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, who serves on the advisory panel, argues that the group needs money to fund independent research. He mentioned complex questions that have arisen regarding NorthStar's financial assurances and the projected costs of decommissioning.

“One of the things that I would suggest we want to make sure of is that the panel has access to its own experts to kind of help explain what is being presented so that we can arrive at our own conclusions,” Campany said.

Others concurred. Jim Matteau, a Westminster resident who serves on the panel, said there's a lot of initial optimism about NorthStar's purchase proposal.

“That optimism needs to be tempered with some healthy skepticism,” Matteau said. He added that, if Entergy or NorthStar makes a claim, “I'd like someone else to help me understand if it's true.”

Campany warned that, when it comes to nuclear policy experts, “those folks don't come free or cheap.” But advisory panel members, when pressed for a specific financial request at the joint hearing on Feb. 8, didn't have an answer.

O'Connor stressed that panel members aren't requesting a paid staffer and “don't want to create something that's high-overhead.”

In a subsequent interview, O'Connor said she hadn't yet gotten back to lawmakers on the issue because she doesn't want to request funding “until we know what we really need.” The matter is expected to come up again at the panel's March meeting.

“Every time we talk about it, it's in big-picture terms,” O'Connor said. “What we need to do is drill down more, because we may not need the money we think we need.”

The issue of state support for the advisory panel has come up before, without any real resolution. But some say that, with the Vermont Yankee sale looming, now is a good time to figure it out.

Noting that NorthStar's purchase would be “the first of its kind in the country,” O'Connor told lawmakers that “it's important for you in the Legislature to understand some of the issues that are going to arise from this. They're financial, and they're technical.”

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