VT official: Vermont Yankee trust fund process is 'broken'

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BRATTLEBORO >> Chris Recchia is not happy.

The commissioner of Vermont's Public Service Department made that clear Thursday night at a meeting in Brattleboro, where he repeatedly criticized the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its decisions regarding the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

Specifically, Recchia and other state officials say they are deeply concerned about how, when and for what purposes plant owner Entergy will be allowed to withdraw cash from Vermont Yankee's decommissioning trust fund.

Recchia declared that "we're not getting any traction on this with the NRC," and he later added that his office — in conjunction with the Vermont attorney general — is seeking reform in the federal regulatory process.

"What we're learning is that the NRC process is broken and needs to be fixed, and I fully expect Vermont to be leading that charge with other states," Recchia said.

The NRC takes exception to Recchia's comments, with spokesman Neil Sheehan on Friday saying the federal agency has an open line of communication with Vermont officials.

"We are having ongoing communications with the state of Vermont and other states," Sheehan said in a statement e-mailed to the Reformer. "We have sought to answer any questions the state might have about our decision-making on exemptions granted to Vermont Yankee with regard to decommissioning. We will continue to have that dialogue."

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power in late December. The plant is entering an extended period of dormancy called SAFSTOR that is expected to last for decades, with the timing of actual decommissioning dependent on there being sufficient money in the plant's decommissioning trust fund.

It is estimated that decommissioning Vermont Yankee will cost $1.2 billion. At the end of April, according to Entergy, the fund held $654.4 million.

So any expenditure from the trust fund is scrutinized by those who want the plant site cleaned up sooner rather than later. That has led to friction between state officials and the NRC, which makes decisions about the extent to which Entergy can use the trust fund.

Just last week, the commission ruled that Entergy can make withdrawals from the fund to manage spent nuclear fuel at Vermont Yankee. Also, the NRC decided that Entergy doesn't need prior NRC approval for those withdrawals.

Recchia, speaking at a Thursday meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, took issue with those decisions. He also noted that a previous Vermont Yankee shutdown agreement between the state and Entergy didn't cover trust fund expenditures because it was clear that the two sides couldn't come to an agreement on that issue.

"We're starting to go through that process now, and we are just finding that there is blatant inconsistency between what NRC is allowing to be taken out of (the decommissioning trust fund), and what the regulations say can be (taken out)," Recchia said. "It is for radiological decommissioning – tasks that advance radiological decommissioning. So, emergency planning, taxes, spent fuel management we just don't see how that is eligible."

Sheehan explained the NRC's decision by saying the agency reviewed Entergy's cost estimates and cash-flow analysis. The NRC "determined that the amount of money projected to be available to pay for decommissioning work is sufficient such that the use of a portion of the decommissioning trust fund for spent fuel management activities will not prevent the company from performing the required cleanup of the site through license termination," he wrote.

"Such exemptions are not unprecedented," Sheehan added. "In recent years, such changes have been approved by the NRC for the Kewaunee (Wisconsin), San Onofre (California) and Crystal River (Florida) nuclear power plants."

The fact that this has happened elsewhere, however, does not impress Recchia.

"I will say that everything NRC has done, and everything Entergy has requested, is consistent with what has been done at other plants," Recchia said. "But, as this is my first exposure to this process, I would say it's unbelievable what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing."

Sheehan noted that the state has requested a hearing on the NRC's exemption regarding the use of decommissioning funds for spent fuel management. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is scheduled to hear arguments on that issue July 7.

On Thursday, Recchia said the state is going beyond simply challenging the NRC's decisions. He suggested that reform is needed, not just for Vermont Yankee decommissioning but also for future decommissionings at nuclear sites in other states.

"The (Vermont) attorney general's office has been talking to other attorney general's offices," Recchia said. "They're watching this process. We are engaged with that. There are a bunch of decommissionings coming up."

For those who oppose Entergy's proposed trust-fund spending, a fundamental argument is that Vermont utility customers for decades paid into that fund. They argue that – as one audience member asserted during Thursday night's meeting – "it is our money."

But Sheehan noted that "the trust fund, and the liability for any shortfalls, was transferred to (Entergy) when it acquired the facility." He said the NRC closely monitors a decommissioning trust fund's growth and, if necessary, orders a plant owner "to take actions, such as executing a parent company guarantee, to adhere to the required funding levels."

"The NRC will continue to review the status of the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust fund on an annual basis to ensure it meets the agency's requirements," Sheehan said.

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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