VY closing funds not available until 2032


Friday, November 16
BRATTLEBORO -- If Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is closed in 2012, it could be up to 60 years before it is dismantled and its parts and waste are carted away for disposal.

That's because it won't be until 2032 that the plant's decommissioning fund will have accrued enough money to pay for the cleanup. If and when a national repository for nuclear waste is finally opened, whether at Yucca Mountain in Nevada or elsewhere, will also affect the timeline for cleaning up the site.

Currently, there is $416 million in the decommissioning fund. The funds started accruing when the utilities that ran the plant prior to Entergy's purchase deposited a lump sum in a bank account set up for the decommissioning. When Entergy bought the plant in 2002, the fund had $304 million in it.

The total estimated cost for the plant's dismantling is $800 million.

But, warned Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry insider, state taxpayers should be concerned over a number of issues related to the decommissioning, including the possibility that Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee could declare bankruptcy in 2012 if it doesn't receive approval to extend the plant's operating license to 2032, leaving the state to pay for the clean up.

"With Vermont's small population base, neither its taxpayers nor its ratepayers can afford to make up the anticipated financial shortfall in Vermont Yankee's decommissioning fund," wrote Gundersen and his wife in a 14-page report assembled after reviewing documents submitted to Vermont's Department of Public Service in August.

"Bankruptcy is extremely unlikely," said Stephen Wark, spokesman for the Department of Public Service. "This isn't a car payment you can walk away from. There are many potential safeguards to prevent that from happening."

Though Entergy spokesman Dave McElwee said he is not an expert on bankruptcy law, he agreed with Wark.

Gundersen also contended that the fund not having enough money to pay for decommissioning in 2012 may be the biggest reason Entergy wants to extend its operating license to 2032.

"I suspect they are going to use this to keep running for another 20 years," he said.

Even though the decommissioning fund "never was designed for the plant to be shut down in 2012," responded Wark, "it is not the primary force that is driving the desire for relicensing. Entergy wants to get the plant relicensed because it's good for business and they believe it's good for Vermont."

But, he added, "to assume it's going to be relicensed as a foregone conclusion is a mistake."

There are still many levels of review, including the possibility of an independent safety assessment, that Entergy has to go through prior to receiving an extension. The Vermont Legislature and the Public Service Board also have to sign off on the extension.

Another major concern for the Gundersens were conclusions reached in a report on the dismantling of the plant conducted by TLG Services, which specializes in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants and was purchased by Entergy in 2000.

According to the Gundersens, the report is a generic report on the costs involved and is not site specific for Yankee.

"While this approach is routinely applied throughout the industry, it can be quite problematic for utilities and ratepayers because it does not apply site-specific variables," they wrote. "In this case, we believe this is quite detrimental to an accurate assessment of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant Site, thereby placing a huge burden upon all Vermonters."

That is simply not true, said McElwee. The TLG report is site specific and takes into account all conditions at Vermont Yankee.

"It was done specifically for us," he said.

As far as TLG Services' independence from its parent corporation, said McElwee, "it is a premier company for doing decommissioning studies. It was before Entergy bought it and continues to do it for most if not all the industry."

What also should be of concern to Vermonters, wrote the Gundersens, is the fact that nowhere in the TLG report is mentioned additional costs related to an increase in power output recently granted to the plant.

The Gundersens contend the uprate would be responsible for a 4 percent increase in decommissioning costs, or at least $30 million, depending on what decommissioning plan is chosen. The uprate also increases the amount of fuel the plant's boiling water reactor consumes, increasing the amount of radioactive waste left on site.

"We did not see any documents or tables that contained breakout values for either the incremental fuel storage or for the additional radioactivity deposited throughout the plant as a result of the uprate," wrote the Gundersens.

Again, McElwee disputed the Gundersens' conclusions.

"The fund growth over that 20-year period far outweighs the incremental increase from the uprate. The only thing you would really see at the time of decommissioning is additional spent fuel which is the responsibility of the Department of Energy."

The Gundersens wrote that Entergy's formula for determining the rate of return on the investments that are used to complete the fund are too optimistic.

Even so, said Wark, if the decommissioning costs more than what the fund provides for, Entergy would be responsible for making up the difference and until a national repository for nuclear waste is opened, Entergy is also responsible for the costs of on-site storage.

According to the TLG report, wrote the Gundersens, it will cost $4.5 million per year for almost 20 years to store and monitor spent nuclear fuel on the site. A significant portion of this $4.5 million per year cost estimate will be for the spent fuel that will be generated as a result of the uprate, they wrote.

"That's all part of the decommissioning fund and has been accounted for," said McElwee.

If the plant were to shut down in 2012, it would be placed into what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls "Safstore," shorthand for safe storage, for up to 60 years or until the fund has accrued enough money to cover the costs of decommissioning.

Under Safstore, most of the plant would remain in its current configuration, though not producing electricity, with the spent fuel cooling system remaining operational.

This should not be a surprise to anyone who has followed the news in the last five years, said McElwee.

"When the plant was sold to Entergy in 2002 and again when we went back to the PSB for dry cask (approval), the Safstore method was talked about quite openly."

The Public Service Board demanded Entergy demonstrate it had the financial capability to pay for the storage of fuel on site for up to 70 years, he said.

"We were able to show we have adequate funds to do that," said McElwee. "Do we expect to store the waste on site for an additional 70 years? No, I don't think so."

If Yankee is shut down in 2012, he said, Entergy has guaranteed it has $60 million to maintain the plant until the decommissioning fund has reached adequate levels.

The Department of Public Service is conducting a study of what the decommissioning might mean for the state and its ratepayers, to be released sometime next year, said Wark.

"We want to make sure Vermont has the power it needs for the next 20 years and that it is safe and reliable."

The report will take into account all costs related to clean up, including the effects of uprate, he said.

Once the plant is decommissioned, the site must be turned into a "green site," said Wark, safe for all human activities.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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