Entergy details staff cuts, spent fuel plans at Vermont Yankee


BRATTLEBORO -- Entergy expects to slash its Vermont Yankee staff by more than 40 percent early next year after the Vernon nuclear plant shuts down, with another big staffing reduction due in spring 2016.

Also, the company's local charitable giving -- which totaled $175,000 this year -- will be reduced by an unspecified amount next year, administrators said.

But at the first meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel Thursday night in Brattleboro, Entergy also delivered a few bits of somewhat positive news.

First, the company expects to complete a detailed decommissioning site assessment in the next 30 days, far ahead of a year-end deadline. Also, Entergy has slightly revised its schedule for moving the plant's spent fuel into more-stable dry cask storage.

"Our current expectation is that we will have that done by the end of 2020," said Mike Twomey, Entergy vice president for external affairs. "We're a little bit ahead of our earlier expectation."

Entergy announced more than a year ago that Vermont Yankee would cease producing power by the end of 2014. That spurred concerns not only about the economic impacts of Yankee's closure, but also about how -- and how quickly -- the plant would be decommissioned.

Entergy previously inked a settlement with the state that included eventual payouts of $25 million for site restoration, $5 million for clean-energy development, and $10 million for economic development in Windham County.

Thursday marked another milestone in the shutdown process, as 17 of the 19 members of the newly minted Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel gathered for the first time at Brattleboro Union High School.

The panel includes state and local officials, local residents and lawmakers from three states. Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, led the meeting and said the panel is designed to serve as a sort of conduit between Yankee's decommissioning activities and the general public.

The panel takes comments, provides comments and also must provide annual reports to the governor and the Legislature.

"The point is that this is a citizen advisory panel that's intended to provide a way for the general citizenry to understand and to respond to what's going on the with the decommissioning process," Recchia said.

Also on the panel are two administrators from Entergy, and Twomey said the company is a "very willing participant in this process."

"We do think it's important to have an ongoing dialog with all of the stakeholders about the issues that are facing both the company and the community," he said.

Given long-term tensions surrounding Yankee and its impacts, some other members of the panel said such a dialog is key. Jim Matteau, a Westminster resident appointed to serve on the decommissioning panel, talked about "a fresh start" but warned that transparency is vitally important.

"I feel very strongly that the burden of proof is on us," Matteau said. "We have to be transparent from the get-go, and I think the public is probably, justifiably, skeptical."

Two Entergy representatives -- Twomey and Chris Wamser, Vermont Yankee site vice president -- gave a lengthy presentation that opened a window onto the plant's current operations and Entergy's preliminary plans for decommissioning.

Both said there are separate staffers who are working on decommissioning so that the current Yankee staff -- with total numbers still in the 550 to 560 range -- continues to run the plant.

"Our focus is on safe, reliable operation of that plant through the end of this year," Twomey said. "There are a lot of issues going on. We have teams of people who are focusing on decommissioning planning."

But there are changes happening, and Entergy administrators touched on several key points in outlining their plans.

The plant, as Entergy acknowledged earlier this month, has begun a "coast-down" in terms of power output as the amount of available fuel at the site is diminished.

"Right now, we are at about 97 percent capacity, and that's going to come down slowly, over time, over the next couple of months," Twomey said.

Staffing will "remain basically the same through the beginning of 2015," Twomey said. "And then, at key milestones, it will be reduced."

The first big reduction comes in early 2015, when staffing will be cut to 316 after the plant's reactor is de-fueled and the facility moves into what's called "wet fuel management."

"Once we are in that mode, we will not need the staffing that we needed to operate the plant," Wamser said.

The plant will transition to "dry fuel management" in spring 2016, when more jobs will be cut, Entergy projects.

"The staff needed to maintain that is reduced again. You can see the number of approximately 127 personnel on site at that time," Wamser told meeting attendees Thursday. "Really, the focus in that period of time is going to be completing the construction of the second dry fuel-storage pad and the ongoing efforts to remove the fuel from (the spent fuel) pool and get it out to the casks."

The fate of Vermont Yankee's spent fuel remains a contentious issue. On Thursday, responding to concerns about ongoing storage in spent-fuel pools, Twomey contended it makes sense to mix older, cooler fuel with newer spent fuel in those pools.

"There are benefits to leaving the older fuel with the newer fuel," he said, while adding that, "eventually, by (the end of) 2020, all of that fuel should be in dry-cask storage."

That's slightly ahead of the earlier-stated 2021 deadline for that transition. Twomey noted that Entergy has applied for a state certificate of public good to construct a second concrete pad for storage of dry casks at the site.

"We've got an existing concrete pad on which the existing dry-cask canisters holding the spent fuel are located. We need a second pad because of the volume of spent fuel we'll be putting out there," Twomey said.

"The (state CPG) case is moving along a little slower than we had hoped, mainly because we had to do some technical evaluation of the moisture content in the soil, but we are expecting that case to proceed along a schedule that allows us to move the spent fuel according to our expectations," he added.

To initiate the decommissioning process, Entergy pledged to deliver a Vermont Yankee site assessment by the end of this year. The company is "well ahead of our deadline," Twomey said, with the report now expected by the end of October.

"It's really not a document that, to our knowledge, has been created at other facilities," Twomey said, adding that the assessment "essentially is an effort to identify where we think the radiological issues are that have to be dealt with through the decommissioning process; where are there non-radiological issues ... what is it that we think we need to do to complete the decommissioning process."

Entergy has begun fulfilling its settlement obligations with the state. The company in May put $10 million into the site-restoration fund and $5.2 million into a new clean energy development fund, while also allocating the first $2 million installment for Windham County economic development.

The company, however, wants to stop detailed emergency-preparedness planning for the region. At Thursday's meeting, Wamser reiterated that, once the plant is shut down, "the needs for emergency-plan actions are not the same -- they're significantly reduced."

Twomey said scaling back emergency planning is an important cost-cutting measure.

"A lot of the steps that we're taking now to change the operational characteristics of the plant are to reduce the cost associated with that plant," he said. "And that's an important issue, because the decommissioning trust fund -- once we stop operating -- is the source of the funds to pay for whatever work we're doing at the plant. So the sooner we minimize the cost profile of the plant, the better the decommissioning trust fund situation is, because we don't want to spend more money than we have to."

There also is the issue of Entergy's charitable giving, a major source of funding for many area nonprofits and events. Entergy said it has given more than $175,000 locally this year including $53,400 to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital; $32,000 to Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center; $10,000 for Brattleboro's West River Park project; $10,000 for Youth Services; and $8,000 to Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

"Those donations will be reduced over time once we've stopped operating and stopped generating revenue," Twomey said. "We are not going to have the ability to fund all of the organizations ... that we've supported in the past. But we will focus on local community support."

In addition to introductions, Energy's presentation and several questions from the audience, Thursday night's meeting included some housekeeping matters.

For instance, Recchia was elected chairman of the panel, and Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany was named vice chairman. Both appointments are through the end of the year.

Also, the panel set its next three meetings for Oct. 30, Nov. 20 and Dec. 18.

More information on the Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel is available at publicservice.vermont.gov.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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