Consultant airs Vermont Yankee contamination concerns

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VERNON — In its pitch to purchase Vermont Yankee, NorthStar Group Services has touted a detailed cleanup plan consisting of more than 900 elements - each with its own budget.

But there's a growing chorus of skeptics who wonder whether the New York-based company has enough information to make such plans.

The latest warnings come from New Jersey-based GEI Consultants Inc., an engineering firm that reviewed a slew of Vermont Yankee documentation and concluded that information about nonradiological contamination at the idled nuclear plant is "incomplete" and "not adequate."

"We have not seen data that show that the site has been adequately characterized and that there is enough money being set aside" for plant cleanup, GEI's Andrea Poinsett said.

But administrators with NorthStar and current plant owner Entergy are continuing to defend their past site studies and future cleanup plans.

Those who doubt such plans "drastically overstate the possibility that material 'unknowns' will be discovered at the site," Joe Lynch, a senior government affairs manager for Entergy, wrote in recent testimony filed with the state.

Lynch's testimony is part of Entergy's effort to win Vermont Public Utility Commission approval to sell Vermont Yankee to NorthStar by the end of next year. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission also is weighing the change in ownership.

Vermont Yankee stopped producing power at the end of 2014, and Entergy has been preparing the Vernon plant for an extended dormancy under which decommissioning could take 60 years. In contrast, NorthStar is promising to clean up most of the site as early as 2026.

NorthStar's plan offers the possibility of earlier redevelopment of the property, and it has attracted some support. But there have been many questions about NorthStar's expertise and financial wherewithal.

Also, several state agencies and the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition have raised concerns about how much Entergy and NorthStar know about radiological and nonradiological contamination at a site that produced power for more than four decades.

GEI Consultants, which is advising Windham Regional Commission on the Vermont Yankee sale, focused its concern on nonradiological issues. Such contaminants could include PCBs, metals, petroleum products and other substances.

In a recent presentation to the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, Poinsett outlined several commonly followed steps for evaluating a property and remediating hazardous wastes.

"Through the documentation we have seen, we do not see the standard steps of a typical environmental investigation," she said.

GEI says Vermont Yankee's nonradiological assessment record is "incomplete," and there's no "schedule or plan to let us know when it is expected to be completed."

The lack of such information has implications for decommissioning, the consultant says, since it "increases uncertainty in the time and cost estimates for cleanup."

GEI also raised a number of concerns about future redevelopment of the Vermont Yankee property. Poinsett emphasized the importance of following stringent cleanup standards and maintaining detailed records of any remaining underground structures, fill and pollutants.

"Developers are going to want to know that the property they are looking to purchase or redevelop is not contaminated and they won't have liability for existing contamination," she said.

GEI's findings were met with some skepticism by Jack Boyle, Vermont Yankee's decommissioning director. Under questioning from Boyle, the consultants acknowledged that they had not reviewed site assessments performed in 2001, prior to Entergy's purchase of the plant.

That could be an important point, because one of the 2001 assessments was a more-detailed study that included taking physical samples at the property. "There's a lot of information in there that would have been good for you to have," Boyle said.

A GEI consultant later responded that a 16-year-old assessment, performed long before the plant shut down, would not necessarily be a reliable measure of the site's current conditions.

Entergy's latest site assessment - which did not use physical sampling - was released this year and found no new pollution at Vermont Yankee. The company also has regularly references a detailed 2014 assessment of the property's contamination history.

"Substantial comprehensive radiological and nonradiological site characterization has been performed at the site over the years, and the results of that characterization have been carefully documented," Lynch wrote in his testimony.

He added that Entergy "has a robust process for ongoing monitoring and reporting of conditions (e.g., tritium in groundwater), as well as a comprehensive program governing the cleanup and reporting of any spills involving radiological or nonradiological contaminants."

NorthStar declined to comment directly on GEI's report. But in recent testimony filed with the Public Utility Commission, NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State said the company "had enough information to make a reasonable, informed and conservative estimate" about decommissioning costs at Vermont Yankee.

"NorthStar considered all of the identified recognized environmental conditions and areas of concern on and around the site in evaluating the risk associated with unknown contamination," State testified. "Taking into account the identified areas, and the possibility that contamination could have spread or exists away from the identified areas, NorthStar is comfortable with the cost estimate it produced."

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


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