State approves big change to Vermont Yankee security zone

‘Protected area’ shrinks from 10.5 acres to 1.3 acres

VERNON — State regulators have signed off on a big security change at Vermont Yankee.

The Vermont Public Utility Commission on Aug. 31 approved Entergy's plan to downsize the idled nuclear plant's “protected area” from 10.5 acres to 1.3 acres. The move is expected to save about $1.2 million per month, mostly in security costs.

The commission overruled objections from Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, which had asked for a more extensive review of the plan.

But the approval comes right on time for Entergy administrators, who intend to start the project soon.

“We're obviously very pleased that the Public Utility Commission was able to make this amendment approval consistent with the schedule we had requested,” said Joe Lynch, Entergy Vermont Yankee senior government affairs manager. “It helps our project and the overall schedule.”

Entergy stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, and the company wants to sell the Vernon plant to New York-based NorthStar Group Services by the end of next year. State and federal regulators still are considering that deal, which could lead to the plant's accelerated decommissioning.

Moving all of Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel into sealed casks is a prerequisite for the NorthStar sale.

That ongoing fuel-move project also is the reason behind Entergy's newly approved security-modification plan.

New features

Unlike the current protected area, which includes multiple buildings, the smaller zone would encompass only the plant's two fuel storage pads and a new central alarm station building. Entergy also plans to install security features such as a concrete vehicle barrier system, fencing, lighting, cameras, and intrusion-detection equipment.

The changes are expected to take effect next year when the plant's fuel move is complete. “The only safety [concerns] that will remain, once the fuel is on the pads, is the protection of the fuel,” Lynch said.

Entergy last year received state permission to construct Vermont Yankee's second spent-fuel storage pad. In May, the company presented its security modification request as an amendment of that previous state decision.

That didn't sit well with the New England Coalition. The anti-nuclear group argued that Entergy's plan “is not a minimal change” but instead is a “largely a new proposal” that deserved a hearing and consideration separate from any past utility commission cases.

That's especially true, the coalition said, if NorthStar follows through on its pledge to clear most of the Vermont Yankee site as soon as 2026.

“Reformatting the site and building new [security] structures such as those proposed by Entergy may actually exacerbate visual, planning, and site reuse impacts,” the coalition argued in filings with the state.

But the Public Utility Commission didn't see it that way.

In its order approving Entergy's proposal, the commission said the smaller security zone aligns with local and regional planning goals because it “will facilitate the orderly and timely decommissioning” of Vermont Yankee.

Commissioners also saw economic benefits. They say a lesser burden on the plant's decommissioning trust fund boosts the prospects of a quick cleanup and also increases the chance that there will be leftover trust fund money returned to Vermont electric ratepayers.

Less visible infrastructure

Aesthetics aren't a concern for the Public Utility Commission in this case. Entergy's plan “will result in a substantial reduction in the total security infrastructure visible” on the site, commissioners wrote, and the planned new structures also will “occur in the broader context” of an industrial property.

Commissioners didn't buy New England Coalition's argument that officials should consider Entergy's security plan in light of the NorthStar purchase proposal.

Accelerated decommissioning “remains at most an undefined possibility, and one that is unlikely to occur for a number of years, best addressed in the commission's review of those transactions,” commissioners wrote.

“Even in the event that the other elements of the VY station are decommissioned in the near-term,” commissioners added, “some facilities associated with the station can be expected to remain on the site for an extended period of time.”

The Public Utility Commission also ruled against New England Coalition's request for a hearing on the matter, contending that the coalition “has not presented any factual allegations that identify a significant issue” that would trigger such a hearing.

The commission did, however, agree to several state Agency of Natural Resources permitting requests in connection with the security changes. For example, Entergy needs to amend its stormwater permit; obtain state approval to modify its water system; and obtain a floodplain permit.

Lynch said those permitting processes already are underway.

While the security project will extend well into 2018, “we do plan on doing some of the construction work this fall,” he said.

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