Nuke critics can testify in Vermont Yankee case

In this file photo from when Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon was still operating, control room operators keep an eye on the gauges and dials that keep track of the reactor's status. Vermont Yankee ceased operations in December 2014.

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MONTPELIER — State regulators will consider the testimony of two prominent nuclear critics when deciding whether a cleanup company should be able to buy Vermont Yankee.

The Vermont Public Utility Commission has ruled that the majority of testimony offered by Ray Shadis and Arnie Gundersen is admissible. In doing so, the commission overruled most objections filed last fall by Entergy and NorthStar Group Services, the idled nuclear plant's current and prospective owners.

In a key finding, the commission ruled that Shadis can weigh in as an expert. Commissioners noted that Shadis — a long-time adviser to the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition — testified when Entergy bought Vermont Yankee 16 years ago.

"Mr. Shadis' experience constitutes sufficient knowledge of matters that could assist the commission in understanding the issues before us as much today as it did in 2002, and the level of Mr. Shadis's experience will go to the weight that we give his admitted testimony," the commission's Feb. 8 decision says.

Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014, and the company had been planning an extended decommissioning process that could last until 2075. But the proposed deal with NorthStar could change that: The New York-based demolition and remediation company says it can restore most of the Vernon site no later than 2030 and possibly as soon as 2026.

NorthStar's plan is under review by the state Public Utility Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Both agencies have to approve the sale in order for it to go through. While there is support for accelerated decommissioning, state officials and critics like the New England Coalition have raised questions about NorthStar's ability to follow through on its plans.

Shadis and Gundersen — of Burlington-based Fairewinds Associates — last August filed testimony before the Public Utility Commission questioning NorthStar's financial planning, radiological cleanup plans and site restoration proposals.

For example, Shadis slammed NorthStar's proposal to bury a significant amount of Vermont Yankee rubble at the site. And Gundersen warned that NorthStar's lack of experience "has led me to conclude that there is a significant financial risk to the state of Vermont and its citizens if Vermont Yankee were to be decommissioned and dismantled with the petitioners' approach."

Entergy and NorthStar subsequently asked the commission to toss both activists' testimony. The companies challenged Shadis' qualifications to testify and argued that Gundersen ignored important financial evidence.

The commission disagreed on most counts.

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In addition to ruling that Shadis can be considered an expert based on his experience in nuclear matters, commissioners also said Shadis is allowed to testify as a lay witness on NorthStar's rubble-disposal plans and on whether the company is "a fair partner for Vermont."

"The (New England Coalition) positions set forth by Mr. Shadis in his testimony are relevant to these issues and of concern to NEC and its members, many of whom have homes or businesses in the vicinity of the Vermont Yankee site," the decision says.

The commission overruled most of Entergy and NorthStar's other objections to Shadis' testimony and exhibits.

However, commissioners gave Entergy and NorthStar a small victory by finding that that Shadis' testimony "exceeds the scope of his expertise in several respects."

There is not enough evidence allowing Shadis to offer expert testimony on the health impacts of radiation exposure, the commission decided. Commissioners also took issue with Shadis' contention that burying large amounts of rubble at the site is "tantamount to a hate crime" due to the property's Native American cultural significance.

As for Gundersen, the commission says it's "inaccurate" to claim he ignored key financial documents that NorthStar has submitted to the state under seal. Gundersen countered that the information simply was not useful, and that's "a decision within the scope of his expertise and discretion," commissioners wrote.

Entergy and NorthStar "will have a full opportunity" to challenge Gundersen at evidentiary hearings if they see fit, the commission added.

Those hearings had been scheduled for last month. But further hearings in the Vermont Yankee sale case have been delayed as Entergy and NorthStar have been negotiating with various state agencies in an effort to resolve their differences about the proposed decommissioning project.

Mike Faher can be contacted at