State wants public input on Vermont Yankee sale

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VERNON — The Vermont Public Service Board has decided to hold two public hearings in Vernon this year to gather comments on the proposed sale of Vermont Yankee.

The hearings — one next month, and another in September — are included in a new schedule for the board's review of Entergy's proposed sale of the Vernon plant to decommissioning contractor NorthStar Group Services.

The schedule stretches into the final months of 2017, allowing time for multiple rounds of discovery, depositions and testimony. But the board's decision to schedule multiple public hearings drew the most applause from some who are watching and participating in the process.

"This schedule recognizes the strong interest that the local community and region have in all matters related to the Vermont Yankee plant," said Geoff Commons, acting public advocacy director for the state Public Service Department. "It will allow for a serious, in-depth review of the proposed transfer."

In November, Entergy announced a plan to sell the shut-down plant and transfer its operating license to New York-based NorthStar. The company has pledged to finish decommissioning and restoration of the majority of the site by 2030, decades sooner than Entergy had planned.

But the deal cannot close without approval from federal and state regulators. And they'll have a lot to consider, since the proposed Vermont Yankee sale is a first-of-its-kind transaction. There are two other instances in the U.S. of a decommissioning contractor taking ownership of a shut-down nuclear reactor. In both cases, those plants are scheduled to revert to their original owners once cleanup is complete.

NorthStar, however, will retain ownership of Vermont Yankee. The company will have long-term responsibility for spent fuel stored at the site, and NorthStar also will be free to redevelop or sell land that's been cleared.

Entergy and NorthStar filed a joint application with the Vermont Public Service Board in December, and the board held a conference on the matter Feb. 1. The new scheduling order comes from that meeting.

It shows that the Public Service Board is planning for a lengthy review, with deadlines for filings and responses set in regular intervals between now and September. The process is capped by technical hearings in Montpelier in the first week of October, with allowance for additional hearings the following week.

Final proposals and briefs are due in the five weeks following those hearings, extending the board's review into November.

The schedule does not indicate when the Public Service Board might rule on the sale. But Entergy, which has requested a ruling in the first quarter of 2018, appears to be happy with the board's plan.

"That's what we were hoping for to meet our schedule for closing on the transaction by the end of 2018," said Joe Lynch, government affairs senior manager for Entergy Wholesale Commodities.

Lynch said proposing a schedule for the Vermont Yankee sale review was a "collaborative process." He added that "it allows for public comment, which is important for everybody."

The Public Service Board is planning to visit Vernon twice to solicit public comment. Depending on the availability of a proper meeting venue, those sessions are scheduled for either March 13 or 14 as well as Sept. 5 or 6.

The first public hearing will also include a less-formal "information session" to describe the proposed sale to the public.

The timing of each of those hearings is "important and intentional from a public information and participation standpoint," said Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director.

He pointed out that the first hearing will happen just before the discovery process, allowing parties like Windham Regional to incorporate the public's questions into informational inquiries submitted to Entergy and NorthStar.

And the second public hearing happens before the board's technical hearings, providing potential fuel for inquiry at those sessions.

"It's an indirect process, but a critical means by which the public can participate in the quasi-judicial proceedings of the Public Service Board," Campany said.

Windham Regional had asked for two public hearings before the board rules on the Yankee sale.

Both the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition and the Public Service Department supported that request.

"It is clear that there is significant public interest in this matter," Commons said.

At this point, the Public Service Board's incorporation of public meetings into the Vermont Yankee sale process contrasts sharply with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's stance.

The NRC must approve the license transfer from Entergy to NorthStar, and officials have said that review does not include a requirement for a public meeting.

Earlier this month, 15 members of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel sent a letter requesting that the NRC "hold a public meeting in Southern Vermont to discuss the proposed sale and license transfer."

"We believe it is imperative that the citizens of Vermont and the neighboring states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire be afforded an opportunity to engage locally and directly with the NRC," the panel's letter said.

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

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