An important player in the cleanup of Vermont Yankee has lost a federal antitrust lawsuit, raising questions about the company's future.
Texas-based Waste Control Specialists accepts low-level radioactive waste from the idled Vernon nuclear plant. It's also a key contractor involved in the proposed sale and accelerated decommissioning of Vermont Yankee.
But a federal judge on Wednesday dealt Waste Control Specialists a significant blow, blocking the company's acquisition by Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions after the U.S. Department of Justice raised antitrust objections about the $367 million deal.
Rod Baltzer, Waste Control Specialists' president and chief executive officer, said he's considering an appeal. And he underscored the financial importance of the EnergySolutions deal for his struggling company.
"WCS has built the nation's state-of-the-art facility for low-level radioactive waste disposal, and the acquisition will protect desperately needed American jobs and innovation and ensure the continued operation of this facility," Baltzer said.
Waste Control Specialists and EnergySolutions both are in the business of radioactive waste disposal, and both have connections to Vermont Yankee.
EnergySolutions currently is disposing of hundreds of thousands of gallons of tainted water that has leached into the plant's turbine building.
Waste Control Specialists has a much more significant Vermont connection, for two reasons.
First, the company's Andrews, Texas facility is part of what's known as the Texas Compact, a multistate deal ensuring a disposal site for Vermont Yankee's low-level radioactive waste. The first shipment of such waste went to Texas in 2012.
Second, Waste Control Specialists is supposed to handle "waste management, packaging, transportation and disposal" for Vermont Yankee's decommissioning if the plant is sold to New York-based NorthStar Group Services.
NorthStar would own the plant under the proposed deal, which could accelerate Vermont Yankee's cleanup by decades. But Waste Control Specialists would be part of what NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State has dubbed a "dream team" of project partners.
Waste Control Specialists, however, has run into trouble in recent months.
The company in April halted its attempt to build a high-level nuclear waste storage facility in Texas. That site theoretically could have accepted Vermont Yankee's radioactive spent nuclear fuel.
In a letter to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission explaining the decision to stop the project, Baltzer cited the high costs of pursuing regulatory approvals as well as the fact that Waste Control Specialists "has faced significant operating losses in each of its operating years."
At the time, he expressed hope that his company could resume the project after merging
But several months prior, the Justice Department had sued to block that deal due to concerns that the merger would create a "near monopoly" for low-level radioactive waste disposal.
"By eliminating the most significant disposal competitor [EnergySolutions] has faced since it began operations, the proposed acquisition would lead to higher prices, lower-quality service and less innovation," Justice officials wrote in their suit, filed in November in U.S. District Court in Delaware.
The case went to trial this spring. During those proceedings, Waste Control's attorney reportedly argued that the sale was critical to his client's survival and that the company would "exit the market" if the deal didn't go through.
But on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson issued an order finding in favor of the Justice Department. "Defendants are enjoined and restrained from carrying out the acquisition of Waste Control Specialists LLC by EnergySolutions," Robinson wrote.
Both companies expressed disappointment in the decision.
"We believe this acquisition was in the best interest of the long-term waste disposal needs for the nuclear industry," said David Lockwood, EnergySolutions president and chief executive officer.
Lockwood added that "we remain confident in our capability as a company to lead the industry in radioactive waste management and decommissioning. We look forward to working with WCS to best serve the interests of our customers."
For Waste Control Specialists, Baltzer noted that the federal antitrust probe and litigation had lasted more than 18 months, "at great expense" to the company.
Waste Control "must now determine whether to appeal the trial court's decision and further prolong the process and associated expense," he said.
In April, when the Texas company stopped work on its high-level nuclear waste site, State said NorthStar administrators still had "full confidence in (Waste Control Specialists) as a partner for the Vermont Yankee project and look forward to continuing to do business with them."
NorthStar did not immediately comment on Wednesday's court decision.
But Deb Katz, who leads the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network and is a fierce NorthStar critic, said she believes the ruling leaves Waste Control Specialists and the Vermont Yankee decommissioning plans financially vulnerable.
"Is this the group we can count on to clean up Vermont Yankee's highly contaminated site? I don't think so," Katz said.
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at email@example.com.