Buyer lobbies for feds' blessing
Representatives of NorthStar Group Services Inc., the proposed buyer of the shut-down Vernon plant, and Entergy, the current owner, hope to close the sale by the end of 2018.
But they're looking for regulatory approvals well before that: During a meeting with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission Tuesday, an Entergy executive proposed that the NRC approve the plant's license transfer before the end of 2017, and he said he hopes the Vermont Public Service Board will OK the sale in the first quarter of next year.
That permitting schedule would allow significant planning and engineering work to happen before the sale is finalized, thus speeding up the Vermont Yankee decommissioning process, said Scott State, NorthStar's chief executive officer.
That "should allow us to initiate decommissioning a couple years ahead of the planned  start," State said.
For some, however, the start of the federal permitting process for the Vermont Yankee sale has raised more questions than answers. There's a continuing push for the NRC to hold a public hearing somewhere in the vicinity of Vermont Yankee so that more local residents can ask those questions.
"This is a radical shift in regulation, and it deserves more than a fast-tracking," said Deb Katz, Citizens Awareness Network executive director.
Katz's organization, an anti-nuclear group based in northern Massachusetts, was among many participants in a 90-minute meeting held Tuesday morning at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.
A formal NRC application to transfer Vermont Yankee's license to NorthStar is expected next month. But Tuesday's "pre-submittal" session served as the kickoff for the federal agency's review, and State started the meeting by telling NRC staffers why he and Entergy executives think the sale is a good idea.
First and foremost, NorthStar is pledging to have most of the Vermont Yankee site - aside from a spent fuel storage facility - decommissioned and restored by the end of 2030. That's decades sooner than Entergy had planned.
NorthStar has committed to starting the project in 2021. But, as he first disclosed in last month's application to the state, State told NRC staffers that it's possible NorthStar could begin work in 2019 and finish the job by the end of 2026.
That depends, however, on NorthStar getting a head-start on preliminary planning work. And State, in an interview after Tuesday's meeting, tied that head start directly to an expedient federal and state permitting process.
"There's a planning process, and there are a lot of long lead time items," State said. If there's uncertainty about when or whether the Vermont Yankee sale will be approved, he added, "we wouldn't commit the resources and spend the money to do those things."
If the Vermont Yankee project gets the go-ahead, State said his company will bring extensive experience to Vernon. NorthStar is "the largest demolition and facility abatement company in the world," he said.
While NorthStar's nuclear experience is limited to smaller reactors, State told the NRC that his company has taken down fossil-fuel plants much larger than Vermont Yankee. And State again touted the nuclear, engineering and waste-disposal expertise of three other proposed partners in the Vermont Yankee job.
"We're not here to cut corners," State said. "We're here to do the job right."
The NRC will be evaluating the technical qualifications of those companies. The agency also will look at financial qualifications to determine whether NorthStar has access to adequate capital to finish the cleanup job.
As part of the proposed sale, NorthStar will take over Vermont Yankee's decommissioning and site restoration trust funds. The company's deal with Entergy requires that the decommissioning trust fund contain $513.5 million when the sale closes, according to documents accompanying NorthStar's Tuesday presentation.
At last report, the trust fund held $562.9 million. But Entergy continues to spend from that fund, and State said Entergy may have to provide some "top-off" money at the time of the sale if the fund has sunk below the agreed-upon amount.
NorthStar's NRC presentation also included some financial projections: The cost of terminating Vermont Yankee's NRC license is expected to come in at $498.5 million, the contractor estimates.
Within that figure, decontamination and decommissioning ($223.2 million) and removal of large plant components ($95 million) are the largest items. Also included is project management ($93.3 million); facility management ($83.5 million); and decommissioning of the spent fuel storage site ($3.5 million).
The figures submitted to the NRC do not include site restoration, which falls within the state's purview.
NorthStar's projected license-termination price tag also didn't include long-term management of Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel stockpile. NorthStar has said fuel management could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Tuesday's documents showed only a $20 million allocation from the plant's trust fund for that purpose.
State explained that NorthStar views that $20 million as a "reserve" amount to cover costs when needed. The bulk of Vermont Yankee's spent-fuel management funding, he maintained, will come via recovery of money from the U.S. Department of Energy due to the department's failure to meet its statutory obligation to remove spent fuel from plants like Yankee.
That plan spurred some questions at Tuesday's meeting. And Katz, speaking later in the day, argued that NorthStar is "assuming an asset" that doesn't exist unless the federal government agrees to pay or loses a lawsuit filed by NorthStar.
Both State and Steven Scheurich, Entergy's nuclear decommissioning vice president, countered that it's standard practice to recover such funds from the Department of Energy. For example, they provided documents from a 2013 court decision awarding $235.4 million in federal funds to Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee and Yankee Atomic Power Co.
"There's precedent from every nuclear plant that's been shut down for recoveries on a regular basis from (the Department of Energy)," State said.
Given the complexities of the Vermont Yankee sale - and given that it is, in the words of an NRC official, a "unique" proposal - some observers are hoping that the federal agency sees fit to schedule a public meeting in Vermont.
Jack Parrott, an NRC senior project manager, said there's no requirement for a public hearing but promised that "we'll take that under advisement as we go forward."
Parrott noted that, once the NRC publishes notice of the license transfer, there will be an opportunity for public input. NRC officials said they'll also be posting Vermont Yankee-related documents online.
But local resident Lorie Cartwright, a trustee with the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, asked that the NRC "err on the side of granting public meetings." Like others, she had to call in to Tuesday's meeting to participate.
"This is obviously of great importance to our region," Cartwright said.
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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