Changes could endanger Vermont Yankee sale

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VERNON — In his quest to buy the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, NorthStar Group Services CEO Scott State has lobbied for a "reasonable" deal with state regulators.

But there are some things on which State and his counterparts at Entergy are not willing to compromise.

In new documents, the companies' administrators identify two concerns — NorthStar's site excavation requirements and Entergy's long-term corporate liability — that could sink the plant sale and scuttle an accelerated decommissioning project.

On both issues, the executives warn that forcing either company to significantly change its plans would result in Vermont Yankee falling back into the extended dormancy of "SAFSTOR" status — delaying site cleanup for decades.

Under such a scenario, "Entergy currently estimates that sufficient funds may potentially be available to begin decommissioning by 2053, but that start date is far from certain," testified Steven Scheurich, Entergy's vice president of nuclear decommissioning.

Entergy, which stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014, wants to sell the Vernon plant and its decommissioning trust fund to New York-based NorthStar by the end of next year.

If that happens, the companies say, NorthStar can have most of the site cleaned up by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026. That's decades faster than Entergy is proposing.

Both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Utility Commission must sign off on the change of ownership before the sale can close.

The Public Utility Commission's review has featured thousands of pages of testimony. On Tuesday, NorthStar and Entergy administrators submitted their latest responses to concerns and questions raised by state officials and groups like the New England Coalition and the Conservation Law Foundation.

Within those documents, NorthStar and Entergy effectively drew two lines in the sand.

NorthStar is making a stand on at least one aspect of its proposed site restoration standards at Vermont Yankee: The company wants to remove underground structures such as foundations and piping to a depth of 4 feet, with allowances for deeper excavation if such structures are contaminated.

Some state officials have pushed for removal of all foundations, regardless of depth. In recent testimony, Chuck Schwer of the state Agency of Natural Resources said such a standard would "help to eliminate any risk of latent or residual contamination" while also making it easier to redevelop the property.

State, however, argues in his new testimony that such a requirement "would lead NorthStar not to close on the transaction" because it could raise the project's price tag by as much as $100 million.

That "would cause (Entergy) or NorthStar to determine that there will not be enough money in the (decommissioning trust fund) to undertake decommissioning until far into the future, rendering decades of SAFSTOR the only possibility for the site," State said.

State cites evidence showing that Entergy and its predecessor had plans to excavate only to 3 feet - one foot less than NorthStar is proposing.

And he says Schwer's contention that the property should be cleaned up to "residential" standards "is not only cost-inefficient, it is plainly inappropriate" given the long-term presence of spent nuclear fuel at Vermont Yankee.

"To believe that a residential community could develop within sight of the (spent fuel) pads is just not credible, and so release to residential standards is unnecessary," State testified.

While NorthStar focused on site restoration standards, the deal-breaker for Entergy apparently would be any attempt to impose long-term Vermont Yankee liability on the company.

The Conservation Law Foundation had argued that Entergy should retain some responsibility for decommissioning even after the sale to NorthStar. "If Northstar's proposed plan is so good, Entergy should be willing to assume some of the risk and not leave the public to pay for cleanup if things go wrong," Sandra Levine, a Montpelier-based senior attorney for the foundation, wrote earlier this year.

But Scheurich, in his testimony filed this week, flatly rejected that notion.

The company "would consider it a material change to the proposed transaction if the Public Utility Commission were to condition approval in this docket on the imposition of any liability on Entergy Corp. or any other Entergy affiliate, and Entergy would thus exercise its option not to proceed with the transaction," Scheurich said.

"If that were to materialize," he added, "Entergy would place the VY Station into SAFSTOR dormancy and continue to assess initiation of decommissioning when the funds in the (decommissioning trust) are sufficient under that approach."

Other notable points in the companies' latest testimony included:

- State again denied that NorthStar has any plans to use explosives in demolition at Vermont Yankee, despite Vermont Public Service Department testimony to the contrary.

State testified that Vermont's consultants appear to have based their contentions about explosives on "a very early workup of a cost estimate" that "appears to have been borrowed from another project where implosion could have been appropriate."

"NorthStar recognizes, of course, that implosion of a radioactive structure is not generally done," State said.

- State dismissed concerns that NorthStar doesn't know enough about contamination at Vermont Yankee and therefore hasn't planned for possible cost escalations.

Given the company's own assessments of the site and its review of past records, "NorthStar is comfortable with the cost estimate it produced," State said.

He added that waste-disposal costs will be a big part of expenses at Vermont Yankee. The company "has secured preferential waste disposal rates that make NorthStar confident that, even if the soil and materials that require remediation exceed NorthStar's estimate by ten times, the decommissioning will not be delayed or require any additional monies," State said.

- NorthStar's financial position has come under scrutiny, and Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey Adix acknowledged that the company's financial returns were lower than expected for the first part of this year.

But he said revenue since has picked up, including a "substantial increase in the company's emergency response business" related to Hurricanes Harvey and Maria.

- Adix also said NorthStar's acquisition earlier this year by J.F. Lehman & Co., a New York private equity firm, decreased NorthStar's debt by $100 million and gave the company access to new lines of credit.

"Beyond a much stronger working capital position to support the business, NorthStar gained strong owners to help it drive its strategic plan and support the continued growth and financial stability of NorthStar," Adix testified.

Mike Faher reports for the Brattleboro Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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