Our opinion: An olive branch from Entergy?
While we greeted with relief the deal reached between the state of Vermont and Entergy over the future of Vermont Yankee, it's understandable that not everyone is rushing out the party streamers yet.
Entergy's reputation -- after lawsuits, leaks of tritiated water, the collapse of a cooling tower and less-than-forthcoming disclosures of underground pipes at the plant -- is a little tarnished in the eyes of many Vermonters. There was also its bumbling responses to the concerns of Vermonters over the plant's relicensing, during hearings before the Vermont Public Service Board and about its discharge permit application. More than one observer noted that the corporate execs in New Orleans couldn't seem to come to grips with the differences between the culture of the Deep South and Vermont.
But in the past few months, following the Aug. 27 announcement that Entergy would be closing Yankee for financial reasons, there seems to have been a sea change in the way Entergy works with the state. Gone is the arrogance that was a hallmark of its interactions, replaced by, dare we say, a semblance of humility?
Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, attributed the change in the tenor of the conversation to a change in leadership at Entergy.
"As a group we made a commitment that as we do business, we consider all of our stakeholders," he said, and that includes Entergy's shareholders, its employees and the members of the community.
Mohl said the agreement, as it stands now, sets the foundation for a stronger and more constructive relationship.
"While we certainly have had our differences in the past and went through an extensive amount of litigation, it became very clear, when we made the decision to shut down, that we really needed to take a step back and understand and be thoughtful about how we approached this," he said.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has had very public spats with Entergy leadership, was also thankful for the change in the discussion between the parties.
"I want to personally thank Entergy for coming to the table and putting aside our differences from the past," said Shumlin.
With Entergy's announcement that it was closing the plant, it surely didn't have to make as many -- if any at all -- concessions as were announced on Tuesday.
It agreed to set aside $10 million for economic development in Windham County, release the $5.2 million it was holding in escrow in the Clean Energy Development Fund (half of which is targeted to the county), establish a fund specific to cleaning up the site over and above federal requirements, and abandon legal action to recoup the more than $5 million it spent in federal court.
Entergy also agreed to begin cleaning up the site as soon as the trust fund has accumulated enough cash to commence with decommissioning. It is hoped that will be possible sometime in the 2020s, but the exact timeline won't be known until Entergy completes a study of what it will take to remediate the site, a review it said will be complete at about the same time the plant initiates its final powerdown, in December 2014.
Entergy also agreed to make a one-time $5 million payment to the state's Department of Taxes in 2015, but that doesn't include any taxes it might need to pay to the town of Vernon. Discussions on the plant's valuation after it ceases producing electricity are still ongoing between Entergy and Vernon, but if this agreement is any indication, perhaps Vernon may have some good news on the horizon.
And if that was not enough, Entergy said it would remove all spent fuel from the plant's spent fuel pool and transfer it to dry casks over the next seven years.
What did Entergy get in return?
The guarantee that the state would not stand in the way of the Public Service Board issuing a certificate authorizing the plant to operate until the end of 2014. Nor will the state contest Entergy's application to increase dry cask storage at the site. Well, that and a lot of goodwill, not only here in Vermont, but probably in other states where Entergy operates nuclear power plants. Good public relations travels far in this day of instant media.
What will happen to the site after decommissioning is complete is not yet known, but the fact is Entergy will be a property owner in Vermont for at least the next several decades. While it has offered the state the right of first refusal for any parcels that become available for unrestricted use following cleanup, Entergy has not closed out the option of using the site for power production in the future.
Not everyone was happy with the agreement. In a press release, the Connecticut River Watershed Council stated it was disappointed that the agreement didn't call for the plant to go to closed cycle cooling for the remainder of its operation, rather than using the Connecticut River as a means of cooling down the plant.
"CRWC is not satisfied that the thermal pollution continues just because there is only one year left for the plant operation. Entergy has fought tooth and nail to hide behind their flawed science and cherry-picked modeling results in order not to have to stop discharging thermal pollution to the river. We think it is a shame the Shumlin Administration folded on this issue in the face of continued legal bluster by Entergy."
"There are still a number of challenges ahead of us and issues to be resolved," admitted Michael Twomey, vice president of utility strategy for Entergy Services. "But just because we couldn't agree on everything, it doesn't mean we can't agree on things where we find common ground. We intend to be part of the community here in Vermont. As we transition from an operating plant to a decommissioned plant, we plan to participate in the community in a meaningful way."
Given Entergy's previous transgressions, it would be easy to be cynical about the agreement and the declarations coming from its executives. But we would encourage even the harshest of its critics to accept the deal in the spirit of the season and give, for now, the benefit of the doubt to the state representatives who negotiated the deal and to Entergy. Looked on in the light of previous negotiations, this is a heck of a Christmas present to Vermont, and it's OK to be grateful.
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