Entergy slams state's plan to hire Vermont Yankee adviser

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VERNON — The state Public Utility Commission wants some help to determine whether Vermont Yankee should change ownership.

The commission intends to hire a consultant to evaluate "various technical issues" related to the sale. And the cost of that consultant — estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 — would be billed to the Vernon plant's current and prospective owners, Entergy and NorthStar Group Services.

Entergy is objecting to the plan, but it has nothing to do with the cost. Rather, the company is concerned about the consultant's impartiality and the prominence of his or her role in the utility commission's eventual decision.

"The role that the commission contemplates for this consultant improperly goes beyond what has traditionally been allowed," Entergy's attorneys wrote in new documents filed with the state.

Entergy, which stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee nearly three years ago, wants to sell the property and its decommissioning trust fund to NorthStar by the end of next year. NorthStar, a New York-based demolition and environmental remediation company, says it can have most of the Vermont Yankee property cleaned up by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026. That's several decades faster than Entergy has been planning.

The ownership change is subject to approvals from the Public Utility Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The state's review, which is almost a year old and will extend into 2018, has produced thousands of pages of documents containing sharply different opinions on the sale. State officials, for instance, have expressed concerns about NorthStar's technical and financial ability to follow through on its plans. On Oct. 30, the utility commission's general counsel, George Young, sent a letter notifying Entergy and NorthStar that the commission intends to hire a consultant to help handle the Vermont Yankee case.

"In particular, the consultant will assist the commission in assessing the costs and benefits of various decommissioning alternatives proposed by the parties to the extent they relate to matters within the jurisdiction of the commission," Young wrote.

As allowed under state law, Young added, "the commission intends to allocate the costs of retaining the consultant to the joint petitioners."

It's not clear who the commission's consultant is or whether he or she has been formally hired. The consultant has not been identified in public documents, and the commission has not yet responded to Entergy's objections.

In an email to VTDigger.org, utility commission Clerk Judith Whitney said "the commission cannot comment on matters which are pending before it."

NorthStar filed an objection to the commission's proposal, but it's a relatively minor one: The company wants a chance to determine whether the consultant is suitable to review and assess documents that have been labeled "highly confidential" in the case. Entergy, however, is objecting more strongly.

The company says it recognizes that state law and past precedent both allow the commission to retain expert witnesses and advisers. But Entergy argues that the consultant's role in this case would be "impermissibly broad" based on "precedent from the Vermont Supreme Court and other jurisdictions."

Entergy, citing a request for consulting proposals issued by the commission, says the regulatory body is giving its prospective adviser a "sweeping mandate" to review testimony and exhibits and offer "analysis and conclusions" directly to the commission.

Entergy notes that the consultant would not be required to file any testimony or testify at a public hearing.

"Thus, the parties will have no opportunity to probe the consultant's analysis and conclusions," Entergy's attorneys wrote.

Fairness also is a concern. Entergy's attorneys say their client and NorthStar should have a chance to probe a consultant's background before he or she is hired "so that the parties can assess whether the prospective consultant may be biased in favor of or against a particular party."

Mike Faher writes for VTDigger and the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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