MONTPELIER — The sale of the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to a New York City-based industrial demolition company was approved by the Vermont Public Utility Commission Thursday.
The demolition company, NorthStar Group Services, plans an accelerated demolition and cleanup of the plant, which is located in Vernon, Vt.
In a decision released late in the afternoon, the quasi-judicial board said the benefits of the sale outweighed the potential risks. NorthStar plans to demolish the nuclear plant almost immediately, in stark contrast to the current owner, Entergy Nuclear, which had planned on putting the reactor into mothballs for decades, waiting for its decommissioning trust fund to grow.
"The commission acknowledged that risks will remain after the transfer, largely due to the possibility of unforeseen costs, but concluded that the benefits of the transfer outweigh the risks, especially considering the oversight of the cleanup process and financial disbursement schedule by Vermont agencies such as the Department of Public Service, the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Health," the commission stated in a release announcing its approval.
Under the approved plan, the high-level radioactive fuel will remain on site in a special storage facility until the federal Department of Energy removes it to a yet-to-be-built federal storage site.
"We are very pleased with the efforts of all parties and the level of informed public involvement in this proceeding," said Commissioner Margaret Cheney of Norwich, one of the two commissioners who heard the case. "We are satisfied that approving the transfer and moving forward with the accelerated cleanup schedule for the Vermont Yankee site is in the best interests of the people of Vernon and the state of Vermont."
Cheney was joined by Commissioner Sarah Hofmann in approving the transfer of the plant to NorthStar. Under NorthStar's plan, it will start demolish and cleanup no later than 2021, and finish cleaning up the Vernon site no later than the end of 2030. Entergy's plan would have delayed cleanup for 30 to 40 years.
The buildings at the Vernon site will be removed and underground structures will be removed to a depth of at least four feet. The site will be regraded and seeded, setting the stage for reuse of the site.
"NorthStar appreciates the Commission's thorough review of our petition," said Scott State, chief executive officer of NorthStar Group Services. "Its order recognizes the hard work NorthStar, Entergy, Vermont state regulatory agencies, and numerous other community stakeholders put into reaching a comprehensive agreement that will enable NorthStar to safely return the Vermont Yankee site to conditions suitable for productive economic use decades sooner than originally planned."
"We are pleased with the Vermont PUC's order approving the sale of Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee to NorthStar," said Michael Twomey, vice president of external affairs for Entergy Wholesale Commodities. "With this approval in hand, we expect to close the transaction in early 2019."
"The PUC's decision is another milestone toward the safe, timely, and efficient decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, which would be a positive outcome for the town of Vernon, Windham County, the state of Vermont and other stakeholders," Entergy and NorthStar said in a joint statement.
Entergy Nuclear shut down Vermont Yankee almost four years ago, eventually laying off hundreds of employees. When it made the announcement in 2013, it blamed the New England energy market, and the effects that fracked natural gas had on the wholesale energy markets.
In the past four years, the town of Vernon has been working on its post-Yankee economic strategy, as the impact of the closing hit the town hard.
"Throughout this long process dedicated volunteers, along with expert consultants, worked hard to ensure the safety and long term well being of our residents," said Josh Unruh, chairman of the Vernon Select Board. "We are confident that NorthStar will be a valuable community partner during the decommissioning process and we are encouraged by the decision of the PUC.
"Although Vermont Yankee has long been part of our identity, we are looking forward to new ways to improve the stability of our local and regional economy through the responsible reuse of the VY site," said Unruh, who is advertising sales manager for the Brattleboro Reformer.
Entergy Nuclear bought Vermont Yankee in 2002 from a group of New England-based utilities, and during its 16 years of ownership it expanded fuel storage as well as increased power production. Yankee started operating in 1972, and was the scene of dozens of anti-nuclear protests over the years.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the sale or transfer in October, saying that its questions about the financial wherewithal of NorthStar, which has never undertaken the demolition and cleanup of a commercial nuclear reactor, had been satisfied. The Vermont regulators delayed their decision until the NRC ruled.
Earlier this year, NorthStar reached a key agreement with the Scott administration and all but one party to the sale, including some long-term anti-nuclear groups. That agreement was viewed as key to answering persistent questions about NorthStar's plans for the demolition and cleanup, and whether it had the expertise and financial backing.
Only the Conservation Law Foundation of Montpelier still opposed the transfer and sale.
"We are disappointed that Vermont communities will be saddled with a risky transfer of the contaminated Vermont Yankee site," said CLF Senior Attorney Sandra Levine. "The transfer of the site fails to provide common sense protections for local families and businesses, and it will leave Vermonters on the hook if something goes wrong."
The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel was slated to meet Thursday evening in Brattleboro, and NorthStar and Entergy officials were expected to attend.
The chairman of the commission, Anthony Roisman, who at one time worked for the anti-nuclear New England Coalition on Nuclear Pollution, recused himself from the lengthy case and did not participate in the decision.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802 254-2311, ext. 154.