Vermont Yankee: Anti-nuclear group doubts cleanup plan

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BRATTLEBORO — The company that wants to buy Vermont Yankee hasn't properly assessed the plant for radiological contamination and therefore "cannot know" the true cleanup cost, a Brattleboro anti-nuclear group contends.

New England Coalition, in new filings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeks to intervene in the federal review of Vermont Yankee's proposed sale to NorthStar Group Services.

One of the coalition's biggest concerns mirrors worries that have been previously expressed by Vermont officials — that NorthStar could run into unforeseen problems and run out of money before finishing decommissioning.

NorthStar "cannot reasonably assure that it has adequate financial resources to own and operate Vermont Yankee for the purpose of decommissioning and fuel storage," wrote Ray Shadis, a New England Coalition technical adviser.

In a statement issued Friday, NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State objected to that characterization.

"NorthStar is confident that our team's experience on similar projects; due diligence on issues specific to Vermont Yankee; and careful planning including multilayered financial safeguards have prepared us well to complete a thorough decommissioning consistent with all environmental, health and safety standards," State said.

After more than 40 years of operation, power production ceased at Vermont Yankee in December 2014. Plant owner Entergy had been preparing the property for an extended period of dormancy under which decommissioning could take six decades. But that could change if Entergy's proposed sale to NorthStar is approved by federal and state regulators.

NorthStar has promised to clean up the majority of the site no later than 2030. That would make the property available for redevelopment much sooner, but some have expressed skepticism about the company's ability to follow through.

That sentiment has spilled over to the NRC's review of NorthStar's plans.

In documents filed last month with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board — an independent judicial body of the NRC — Vermont officials claimed that there is "significant risk" in NorthStar's proposal due to "numerous, thus-far-unanalyzed health, safety and environmental concerns."

State officials focused on financial issues, arguing that unexpected contamination; complications related to long-term spent fuel storage; and other issues could drastically drive up decommissioning costs.

Like Vermont officials, the New England Coalition is asking the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board for intervention status and a hearing in connection with the Vermont Yankee license transfer.

The coalition offers two main contentions.

First, Shadis says the license-transfer application is "incomplete" because it does not offer any environmental impact statement nor "any substantive and reliable information about the varieties, quantities, depth and extent of radiological contamination."

Shadis is critical of what he calls the NRC's "tunnel-vision" approach to NorthStar's application. He says the scope of NorthStar's decommissioning proposal is far greater than a standard license-transfer application. Instead, NorthStar is pitching "an untested method of managing decommissioning under new and unanalyzed circumstances."

"Clearly, the application is about more than executive musical chairs, yet the staff demonstrates none of the 'inquiring attitude' that NRC expects of its licensees let alone takes the 'hard look at environmental issues' required as by (federal law)," Shadis wrote.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said he could not immediately address the New England Coalition's concerns, though he said the NRC will be responding to the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

In its second contention, the New England Coalition says NorthStar has not performed a "radiological site survey adequate to determine realistic soil and concrete remediation costs" at Vermont Yankee.

NorthStar has referenced a detailed 2014 site assessment study compiled by Entergy. But Shadis finds fault with that study, since it was not an NRC-commissioned document and was "unsupported by any field sampling and sample analysis."

The proven presence of strontium-90 and other radionuclides at Vermont Yankee "could greatly increase the costs of decommissioning and site restoration," Shadis wrote.

While NorthStar has pledged to work under fixed-price contracts and has offered a $125 million support agreement as a backup to the plant's decommissioning trust fund, Shadis argues that the "costs of late-discovered radio-contamination can exceed NorthStar's reserves."

To defend against such claims, State repeatedly has discussed his company's planning process: NorthStar has broken down the Vermont Yankee decommissioning job into more than 900 "work elements," though the specifics remain undisclosed.

State also has pointed to his company's experience in taking down small reactors and larger, conventional power plants, as well as the nuclear decommissioning experience of AREVA, a proposed subcontractor on the Vermont Yankee job.

On Friday, State said NorthStar and its contractors have "over 30 years of experience of safely decommissioning and cleaning up contaminated sites, including nuclear reactors in high-traffic civilian areas such as college campuses."

"Members of our team have also participated in decommissioning of other commercial reactors in New England and are fully aware of and have adequately planned for the issues raised by others in recent NRC filings," State said.

NorthStar doesn't have to convince Vermont Yankee's host town of its qualifications.

Several days prior to the New England Coalition's June 27 filing, Vernon Select Board members sent the NRC a letter saying they are "supportive of NorthStar's plan to decommission the plant safely and efficiently."

"As a community faced with the challenge of moving forward in the wake of Vermont Yankee's closure, residents are optimistic that reuse of the property will be beneficial," Select Board members wrote.

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

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