With VY sale, a new era dawns in Vernon

With VY sale, a new era dawns in Vernon

NorthStar now owns the dormant nuclear power plant, bringing plans to unbuild it within the next 12 years

VERNON — A new black, blue, and white sign reading “NorthStar: Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Project” appears on Governor Hunt Road, having replaced the one that long labelled the now-closed nuclear power plant the property of Entergy Corporation.

Last week, the companies announced the completion of the sale of the single-unit boiling water reactor, which operated for 42 years to NorthStar from Entergy, which has owned the plant since 2002.

The announcement came on Jan. 11.

The Vermont Public Utility Commission approved the sale last month, and the federal government had issued a similar order in October 2018.

Overall, the sale spent more than two years grinding its way through the negotiation and regulatory process.

In a joint press release, the companies touted the sale as “a first-of-its-kind in the nuclear power industry.”

For the first time, a company - NorthStar Group Services - has taken ownership and received a license transfer from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decommission a plant and restore the property to productive use.

NorthStar has decommissioned smaller nuclear facilities in the past. CEO Scott State, however, has said in public gatherings that the group seeks to focus on decommissioning larger, commercial facilities at the end of their service.

“NorthStar greatly appreciates all the hard work that Entergy and numerous other stakeholders invested to bring this transaction to a successful culmination,” State said in an email.

“Now that the transaction has closed, NorthStar and its industry-leading decommissioning team can move forward with our plan to safely and efficiently restore the Vermont Yankee site to conditions suitable for productive economic use decades ahead of schedule,” he continued. “Our work at Vermont Yankee will serve as a model for decommissioning other retiring commercial nuclear reactors around the country.”

“In the years ahead, NorthStar and its team looks forward to building on the constructive relationships we have already formed with local officials, regulators, and other stakeholders to ensure a successful decommissioning process,” State added.

The NorthStar group includes Orano USA (reactor vessel segmentation and used fuel management support), Waste Control Specialists (waste management, packaging, transport and disposal), and Burns & McDonnell (engineering and regulatory support).

A shorter process

For the local community, NorthStar's ownership means a shorter decommissioning process.

Entergy, which closed the plant in 2014, citing market conditions, had previously planned to follow an NRC decommissioning option called SAFSTOR.

This option included mothballing the plant up to 60 years before decommissioning, ostensibly to allow both for radioactive waste and contamination on the site to decay and to give time for the value of the plant's decommissioning fund to accrue.

NorthStar, by contrast, has said that it intends to have the site restored by 2030 and perhaps as early as 2026 “State approves sale of dormant VY plant,” News, Dec. 12, 2018].

According to the company, Entergy Corporation generates electricity for 2.9 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. It reports revenues of approximately $11 billion.

For Entergy, VY's sale means it can exit the decommissioning process and leave the site behind. In the press release, Entergy noted that the sale allows it to make “progress on its corporate strategy of exiting the merchant nuclear power business.”

Sale for 'a nominal amount'

According to Michael Twomey, vice president for external affairs at Entergy Wholesale Commodities, NorthStar paid “a nominal amount of $1,000” for the property.

Twomey noted that the sale had two essential terms: that NorthStar take ownership of the facility and the nuclear decommissioning trust fund, and that it assume responsibility for the decommissioning and restoration of the site.

Entergy, a publicly traded company, will also experience a one-time charge to its earnings called a “pre-tax book charge.”

“The last public estimate we gave was $165 million in 2018,” said Twomey. “That disclosure was as of our third quarter earnings call.”

The sale agreement did not require a contribution to the nuclear decommissioning trust fund, which the company reported at $554 million as of Sept. 30.

A specific plan and trajectory

The change in ownership marks a change for a local advisory panel. The Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel - NDCAP - will investigate a new role this year.

According to panel chair Chris Campany, the state created NDCAP under an umbrella of unknowns that spanned 60 years.

But the VY site now has a specific plan and trajectory, said Campany, who has asked NorthStar to provide the panel with a summary of the state of the plant now and the tasks it has planned.

He has also asked state agencies what information is required to be shared with the public and any disclosure timelines.

“This is still all new, and they may not know yet,” said Campany, who also wants the panel members to decide how NDCAP can be a nexus for information around VY, both in distributing information to the public and as a clearinghouse for input from residents of the region.

It will be a long process of transition for the panel, Campany said - but the decommissioning process is also long.

It's important the panel is clear on its goals and responsibilities, he added, noting that some panel members want NDCAP to have a greater advisory role to both the state and NorthStar.

“Let's take some time to get this right,” Campany said.

'Breath of fresh air'

The New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, a nuclear watchdog group, is happy with the sale so far.

NEC spokesperson Clay Turnbull said the NEC plans to work with NorthStar to “assemble the Stakeholder Advisory Panel.” The panel was part of a memorandum of understanding created in March 2018.

According to Turnbull, NDCAP exists to inform the state and the Legislature of the decommissioning process. The stakeholder panel would inform NorthStar of concerns related to decommissioning.

Turnbull said NEC still has concerns about any levels of site contamination.

“We're concerned about the actual levels rather than what Entergy has reported they know about,” he said.

According to Turnbull, the extent of site contamination - radiological and environmental - won't come to light until NorthStar conducts tests such as soil and water.

In the meantime, the group is pleased with the sale.

“It's a breath of fresh air to be dealing with NorthStar,” said Turnbull. “NorthStar has expressed more concern and interest in local stakeholders than Entergy ever has.”

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