Our Opinion: Time to move forward
The Public Service Board's announcement on Friday that it was approving a certificate of public good for the operation until the end of the year of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon was not wholly unexpected.
The board had until March 31 to approve the CPG and a memorandum of understanding that was agreed to by the state and Entergy in December 2013. The MOU had a number of concessions from Entergy, which has owned and operated the plant since 2002, including money specifically for economic development in Windham County ($10 million over five years) and the release of $5.2 million to the state's Clean Energy Development Fund, at least half of which is targeted to the county. Entergy also agreed to commence with cleaning up the site as soon as is fiscally reasonable and not wait the 60 years authorized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Public Service Board noted that while the state's past interactions with Entergy were often contentious, resulting in litigation, acceptance of the MOU and approval of the certificate was in the best interests of the state and its residents, especially those in Windham County.
"The Company's sustained record of misconduct has been troubling to observe over the years ..." wrote the three members of the board. That record made the board question whether Entergy could be going forward "a company that lives by its commitments, adheres to legal requirements, including statutes and rules, provides accurate and timely information, and generally is a fair partner for Vermont."
However, noted the PSB, the memorandum of understanding indicates both the state and Entergy have been able to restore their working relationship.
"High-level Entergy VY representatives have shown a positive evolution in their commitment to the state of Vermont," wrote the board.
The board revealed the text of an e-mail sent to then-CEO Wayne Leonard from Entergy Corporation Vice President Curt Hebert, in which Hebert elaborated on Entergy's problems with Vermont.
"We did not get to this point because of poor communications strategy and lack of an advertising corporate giant," wrote Hebert. "We are where we are because people were sloppy, arrogant and unwilling to recognize that what people outside of the nuclear facility think, matters more than they can ever imagine ..."
In that e-mail, Hebert indicated Entergy had a "broken culture" when it came to its relationship with Vermont and its residents.
In an interview with the Reformer a day after the MOU was announced, Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, attributed the change in the tenor of the conversation between the state and Entergy to a change in leadership at the energy giant.
"While we certainly have had our differences in the past and went through an extensive amount of litigation, it became very clear, when we made the decision to shut down, that we really needed to take a step back and understand and be thoughtful about how we approached this," he said.
Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Department of Public Service, was one of the people who negotiated the MOU with Entergy and related to the Public Service Board his impression of the willingness of the new corporate leaders to work with the state.
"This really provides a way forward and we are glad the board realized this," said Recchia. "It provides certainty for the workers at the plant as well as for a careful and predictable shutdown and next steps moving forward with decommissioning."
Paul Burns, the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, wasn't so enraptured by the MOU or the board's decision. VPIRG had repeatedly asked the board to deny the CPG.
"The order sends a troubling message," stated Burns in a press release, "suggesting that a company with the worst kind of record of misconduct could still merit a CPG. It does nothing to discourage that kind of behavior from Entergy or any other company in the future."
And Ray Shadis, speaking for the New England Coalition, which has fought Yankee's operation since it went online in 1972, claimed the board's order was filled with "numerous legal and factual errors ..."
"NEC did not enter into this amended CPG for VY application process two dockets, six-plus years, and more than $200,000 ago with the understanding that a pretty-much unadorned offer of money (and little else) from the applicant to the regulators could moot the whole thing," stated Shadis in a press release. "This is not so much a settlement as a payoff and a capitulation."
We at the Reformer have been watching this whole story unfold over the years and doing our best to report back everything that has transpired. We followed the sale, the uprate and the approval of on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel. We followed the application for license renewal from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the CPG process with the Public Service Board. We followed the Legislature's decision to give itself the authority to prohibit Yankee's continued operation and the federal lawsuit that resulted. We followed the news about the leak of tritiated water at the plant that happened just months after Entergy representatives testified there were no underground pipes carrying radionuclides.
Some of us at the Reformer have toured the power plant stood on the reactor vessel and next to the spent fuel pool. We were the first to publish the pictures of the collapsed cooling tower. We've been neck deep in Vernon for as long as the Reformer has been in print and our coverage has only intensified since Entergy announced the closure of the plant.
Friday's announcement is not the end of the story, but it is the end of part of the story. What's ahead now is nine more months of operation and then a long decommissioning process.
We are satisfied most of the issues have been settled and we are pleased by the financial settlement. Windham County is going to need help when the power plant closes, and the memorandum of understanding brings some sense that our future is not as bleak as when we learned that 600 good-paying jobs would be gone at the end of the year.
Yes, there is still good reason to not trust Entergy, but as the board noted, if it hadn't approved the certificate and the MOU, Yankee would have likely continued to operate until the end of the year anyway. We will continue to keep a watchful eye on Entergy, but we are glad the county is getting something out of the deal, and that wouldn't have happened if the PSB had denied the certificate.
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