Editorial: Care needed in Vermont Yankee mothballing

  • The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station sits along the banks of the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vermont, on June 19, 2013. Its owner, Entergy Corp., plans to sell the plant to decommissioning expert NorthStar Group Services of New York. AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 12/29/2016 12:24:42 PM

Those in the tri-state region who look forward to expeditious dismantlement of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and restoration of its site may see good news in owner Entergy’s plans to sell the plant to a decommissioning specialist.

NorthStar Group Services of New York – which has been billed as far more experienced at dismantling reactors than Entergy –is promising to do the job with the money that has been set aside so far, and to complete the decommissioning 45 years sooner than Entergy would have.

That might sound like good news to Vermont economic development experts, especially in Vernon, where the plant sits, because they are already contemplating non-nuclear commercial uses for the site — uses like a computer data center that could replace many of the hundreds of well-paying jobs that the 43-year-old Yankee plant once provided.

It also sounds promising because many skeptics have assumed removal and cleanup of the 620-megawatt reactor would take more than the $600 million currently in the plant’s decommissioning fund.

But others are expressing concern about the planned sale of Yankee to the demolition and abatement expert — an arrangement NorthStar predicts “will become standard for the industry.”

So far the standard procedure has been for operators of nuclear reactors to decommission the plants themselves, but Entergy officials have said this new approach makes sense because Entergy isn’t in the decommissioning business. They say NorthStar can do the job for less, and much faster.

Entergy had originally announced decommissioning would not be completed before 2075, but NorthStar plans to begin before 2022 and finish by 2031. It would make use of a unique “guaranteed fixed payment system” by which NorthStar would be obligated to perform each component of cleanup and restoration using fixed payments for each of over 900 discrete project elements. If a segment of the project ran over, NorthStar would cover the cost, its executives have said.

However, the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities has told the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel that the sale to NorthStar and its decommissioning plan could be “a bit more complicated than it might appear at first glance.” The advisory panel worries that leaving NorthStar on the hook for overruns on such a complex project could create incentives to cut corners.

The advisory group, which describes itself as neither pro- nor anti-nuclear energy, has urged Vermont’s Department of Financial Regulation to oversee the process and possibly provide oversight to ensure “that enough money is in the deal to complete the deal.”

We would second that, and urge Vermont’s other agencies that have a hand in the plant decommissioning to examine Entergy’s handoff proposal closely. While the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is the big player in this process, state agencies have a part and are closer to the situation, quite literally.

For starters, the site restoration standards, which will guide how the property is left after decommissioning, will be written by state agencies that must approve sale of the plant to NorthStar through the Vermont Public Service Board’s Certificate of Public Good review. The state should use that leverage to ensure as much as possible that a NorthStar decommissioning will work as advertised.

Few things are as simple as they seem, and a nuclear plant, even one that has been closed for two years, is anything but simple. Sooner and cheaper can sometimes translate into fast and dirty — a serious problem when it comes to nuclear pollution that could easily reach the Pioneer Valley.

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