Big month on tap in Vermont Yankee case

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VERNON — January is a pivotal month for the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee.

The state Public Utility Commission's second and final public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Jan. 4 in Brattleboro.

Depositions of key figures in the sale debate will start soon after that hearing. And later in the month, the utility commission will convene technical hearings that are expected to attract a big crowd.

Those developments come as officials with the state Public Service Department and the Agency of Natural Resources continue to express doubts about NorthStar Group Services' plan to buy and decommission the idled Vernon nuclear plant.

"As the proposed transaction is currently structured, and based on information made available to date, the department cannot recommend that the (utility commission) conclude that the proposed transaction would promote the general good of the state of Vermont," Brian Winn of the Public Service Department said in testimony filed earlier this month.

Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee three years ago. The company now wants to sell the plant and its decommissioning trust fund to New York-based NorthStar by the end of 2018.

NorthStar has pledged that it can clean up most of the site by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026, which is decades faster than Entergy had been planning.

The proposed sale is under review by the state utility commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

NorthStar's plan has generated enthusiasm among some who believe the Vermont Yankee site can be redeveloped. But others have questioned the company's technical and financial ability to deliver on its promises, and skepticism dominated the utility commission's first public hearing held in April in Vernon.

The commission's Jan. 4 hearing, set for 7 p.m. in Brattleboro Union High School's multipurpose room, is the final meeting scheduled solely to take public comment on the state's review of the Vermont Yankee sale.

The session will be preceded at 6 p.m. by an information session hosted by the Public Service Department. Entergy and NorthStar "will be available to answer questions regarding the transfer of ownership," the meeting notice says.

The following week, a round of depositions will begin. The Public Service Department will question several NorthStar and Entergy administrators, and attorneys for those companies are scheduled to question state officials and other experts who have testified in the sale review case.

The commission's technical/evidentiary hearings currently are scheduled to start the week of Jan. 22 in Montpelier. But both the exact time and location are not yet clear.

That's due to "the large number of parties and party representatives" expected to attend, a commission staffer wrote in a recent memo. The commission's hearing room may not be big enough, so officials have been seeking an alternate venue that could push some or all of the Vermont Yankee hearings into the following week.

The utility commission is expected to rule on the proposed sale sometime in the first half of 2018. And during the commission's lengthy deliberations, it seems like NorthStar has made some headway with state regulators.

There's more clarity on some formerly controversial issues. For instance, state officials are backing away from a contention that NorthStar would use explosives at Vermont Yankee.

The company immediately denied that, and an expert testifying for the Public Service Department now says the "concerns I expressed previously do not apply" based on NorthStar's explanation that any explosives information was from an outdated, irrelevant document.

Also, Winn testified this month that the Public Service Department "now has a better sense of NorthStar's overall decommissioning plan." Based on that knowledge, "the department is generally satisfied that the personnel NorthStar proposes to execute its technical proposal have relevant experience and expertise," Winn said.

But the department still has "questions and reservations about NorthStar's financial strength and soundness," Winn said.

Environmental questions top the list of concerns for the Agency of Natural Resources. In recent testimony, officials outlined continuing worries about NorthStar's plan to leave some crushed concrete on site and to leave some structures underground.

There's also an ongoing debate about whether Entergy and NorthStar have done enough to locate and measure nonradiological contamination at Vermont Yankee. An Agency of Natural Resources engineer testified this month that the companies' efforts have been "inadequate" on that front, though Entergy recently argued that more testing actually might be dangerous.

The New England Coalition and the Conservation Law Foundation also have continued to file testimony questioning various aspects of the NorthStar deal.

Mike Faher can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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