Fifteen months ago, state officials heralded what they said was a landmark agreement with the owners of Vermont Yankee. But new legal battles are already brewing over the decommissioning of the Vernon nuclear reactor.
After 42 years generating electricity, Vermont Yankee powered down for the last time in late December. Last month, Entergy Nuclear Operations, the company that owns Vermont Yankee, submitted a decommissioning plan to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, says the document raises serious concern. And the legal battle over the radiological decommissioning of this contaminated site has in many ways just begun.
Recchia and other state officials, including Attorney General Bill Sorrell, have asked the NRC to force Entergy to address their objections. The state filed formal comments with the NRC last week on Entergy’s “Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report.”
“We want the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to engage with us constructively to help leverage those issues that Vermont feels important to be addressed, and not just automatically support the industry, which unfortunately looking at history has been the practice,” Recchia says.
Recchia says elements of Entergy’s plan would not only delay the decommissioning process, but potentially saddle Vermont taxpayers with a portion of its $1.2 billion price tag.
Specifically, Recchia objects to Entergy using money from the decommissioning fund for purposes he says are unrelated to ridding the site of radiological waste. Entergy has said it won’t begin the decommissioning process until that fund has enough money to cover the $1.2 billion cost.
The fund only has about $600 million now; Recchia says that $1.2 billion target will be hit sooner if the money is only spent on decommissioning.
“The more principal that you can hold in that account and earn interest and returns, the faster that fund will grow,” Recchia says. “We don’t agree with their proposal to expend an additional $225 million for the management of the spent fuel over time from the decommissioning trust fund.”
Recchia says the state also objects to Entergy’s plan to use money from the fund for emergency preparedness.
Mike Twomey, vice-president of external affairs for Entergy, says Entergy’s decommissioning plan is entirely consistent not only with industry standards, but with its written agreement with the state of Vermont.
“And at some level the Vermont comments are an attempt to overturn longstanding industry and NRC practices,” Twomey says. "This argument that spent nuclear fuel handling cannot be managed with money from the decommissioning trust fund is a very recent invention, and it’s not consistent with either the existing order and arrangements that are in place or with NRC requirements.”
Twomey says the state’s comments to the NRC represent a “step backward” in the decommissioning process. And he says further intervention from the state could make things worse for everyone involved.
“It is possible that through a litigated approach to this decommissioning project, it could end up taking longer and being more expensive,” Twomey says.
Recchia, however, says the issues in this case are in many ways unique to Vermont Yankee, which is only the second privately owned nuclear plant to go through the decommissioning process.
“And so I am hopeful that he Nuclear Regulatory Commission will step up and engage in this new world that we’re in, of decommissioning privately owned plants in a safe and cost-effective way that is respective of state’s rights where they’re located,” Recchi says.
Recchia says he’s also worried that Entergy’s proposal has the potential to leave taxpayers on the hook for decommissioning costs that he says the company should be liable for. Entergy wants its financial liability to expire when the decommissioning fund reaches a zero balance – precisely the moment that Recchia says Entergy’s money would be needed most.
“And once … you’ve expended the fund than discover you need additional funds, Entergy is saying they’re not going to be responsible for more than that. And that’s a problem,” Recchia says.
Twomey says Recchia misunderstands Entergy’s plan, and that the fund cannot run to zero until all decommissioning activities are complete.
Derrik Jordan, a member of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel and a resident of Brattleboro, says he’s impressed with Vermont’s advocacy on behalf of residents.
“I think the state’s doing a great job,” Jordan says. “They had raised many questions in great detail about the PSDAR, and I think the public should know they’re really doing very well in terms of holding Entergy accountable for many issues in the that document.”
Jordan says his most immediate concerns lie with emergency preparedness in the event of some catastrophic event. And he says Entergy’s plan to end its emergency data monitoring system increases the threat posed to nearby residents.
The NRC approved the retirement of that monitoring plan last month, though the state of Vermont has appealed that decision. Jordan says the monitoring system should remain in place at least until 2020, when Entergy says it will move have transferred spent nuclear fuel to dry cask storage containers.
“Until that happens we’re still at a much greater risk for an accident, a power outage, some kind of situation that could expose the fuel and cause great dispersion of the radiation,” Jordan says.
Twomey says that if the state is successful in overturning NRC approval for that plan – and he says he doesn’t think it will be – then related expenses could delay the decommissioning timeline.
“We could end up having to maintain a larger workforce for a longer period of time than we should. And that will be more expensive,” Twomey says. “And those additional costs will delay the eventual decommissioning of the project. And that’s just one example.”
Recent legal conflicts notwithstanding, Recchia says he’s hopeful the state will be able to negotiate an arrangement with Entergy with the company that delivers an optimal result for Vermonters.
“I am still very optimistic that at the growth rate the fund has been growing at, and if we can control how it’s being spent to minimize the withdrawals, that we really should be able to (have the plant decommissioned) in the late 2020s early 2030s, rather than the 2050s or 2060s,” Recchia says.