Nuclear Regulatory Commission reopens petition from anti-nuclear groups seeking Entergy financial information

Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2014

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently reopened a year-old petition from anti-nuclear groups concerned about the financial ability of Entergy Corp. to safely operate its nuclear plants, including Vermont Yankee.

The original petition, filed before Entergy announced plans to shut the 620-megawatt reactor in Vernon, Vermont, at the end of 2014 for economic reasons, had called for NRC staff to seek detailed financial information from Entergy Corp. But after the company balked, arguing such scrutiny was beyond the purview of the NRC, the commissioners backed down.

After a letter last November from U.S. Congressman Edward Markey, D-Mass., and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, to the NRC the agency has again sought financial information from Entergy.

Markey and Sanders said “financial distress and the failure to maintain sufficient operating funds would be expected to signal the potential for future degradations in safety brought about by a licensee’s need to conserve funding.”

Meanwhile, Entergy last month reported a 55 percent decline in second-quarter earnings compared to the corresponding period last year, forcing it to eliminate 800 jobs nationwide.

And that financial news has Rowe-based Citizens Awareness Network and other anti-nuclear groups concerned that Entergy is seeking “subsidies” to keep its plants operating.

“This is significant,” said Citizens Awareness Network President Deborah Katz, pointing to efforts by Entergy in Massachusetts and by Exelon in New York and Illinois to rewrite the rules for how nuclear plants are paid for the electricity they generate. Those companies have argued that as dependable, base-load plants, they are being forced to compete with less dependable renewable sources that are subsidized with energy credits, and with gas-fired plants that may see supply disruptions but are favored by grid-pricing mechanisms.

Entergy, which in 2009 sought unsuccessfully to spin off Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim Yankee and three other reactors into a new company, has said the decision to shut down the Vernon plant was caused in part by low wholesale electricity prices, driven in part by lower natural gas prices, Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, told the Boston Business Journal this spring.

“We have an opportunity to get it back to a reasonable return with improvements in the market,” he said. “We’re optimistic we will see changes in the market that will allow us” to keep operating Pilgrim Station, which he called “a marginal unit” in terms of profitability.

The regional electricity distribution entity, ISO-New England, according to the same report, is considering changing its market rules to penalize plants that are not available during times of high demand or scarce power, and to reward those that are.

In New York, Exelon pointed to the reliability of its Ginna nuclear plant last month in seeking from state regulators an above-market-rate contract for selling its power, according to Tim Judson of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, one of several groups seeking to challenge that decision.

In Illinois, where Chicago-based Exelon operates six nuclear plants, the corporation threatened this spring to shut down those plants if they do not become more profitable, convincing the legislature there to approve a resolution that would undercut renewable energy in Illinois and guarantee that nuclear and coal would be the mainstay of Illinois electricity production for the foreseeable future, according to Judson.

Katz, who has already met with the attorney general’s office in New York and plans to meet in coming weeks with the attorney general in Massachusetts, said she hopes to “inoculate” the states from what she described as efforts to interfere with deregulation of the utilities, which the utilities themselves sought as a way of shedding the economic burden of their nuclear costs.

In Massachusetts, she said, “We believe it’s coming,” especially if approval of an above-market-rate contract for Ginna is allowed to stand. “We want to start working on this issue now.”


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