Sandra Levine: Risky Vermont Yankee transfer should be stopped

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Communities in Vermont still reeling from the toxic waste left behind in their drinking water from long-closed industrial plants understand the importance of corporate responsibility when it comes to environmental issues. Common sense protections keep polluters on the hook and money in the bank for clean-up efforts.

Unfortunately, the planned transfer of the remains of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power facility lack those sensible safeguards. Through a confusing mess involving over a dozen separate corporations - many shielded from liability and without any assets of their own - the current plant owner, Entergy, seeks to hand over the property and clean-up responsibility to NorthStar, a demolition company.

The planned transfer requires approval from both the Vermont Public Utilities Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Vermont regulators must determine if the plan "promotes the general good of the state." In other words, does the transfer leave the facility with a capable and responsible owner who has sufficient financial resources to properly clean up the site?

During days of technical hearings and in recent filings submitted to regulators, Conservation Law Foundation has argued that the answer to that question is no. The fact that the deal allows Entergy to simply hand over the keys while the new owners lack the financial resources to clean up the site should make residents nervous. NorthStar also lacks insurance that is commonplace for similar transfers, another red flag.

In a recent correspondence, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also sounded the alarm, writing that it was unable to confirm that the proposed funding was adequate or that there will be enough money available to complete the necessary decommissioning. The response lays bare the hollowness of support for the transfer from state and local officials.

In response to these concerns, NorthStar attempted to sweeten the deal by adding performance bonds, targeting future proceeds for managing spent fuel, and changing the terms of the support agreement. But a deal that needs to be sweetened is sour to begin with. Lacking money in the bank and financially secure partners to back up the proposal if it falls short, continued promises from NorthStar that aren't supported with real resources are misleading and should not be relied upon.

The proposed deal also lets Entergy walk away from the toxic mess it created. That's not allowed in the transfer of traditionally contaminated sites - like old military bases - where it's common for the transferring entity to remain on the hook as a back up to assist with cleanup efforts. Entergy operated this plant for years, including when the plant leaked and contaminated the site and nearby waterways. If Entergy believes NorthStar will do as good a job as they say, then it should stand strongly behind the deal and agree to maintain responsibility if something goes wrong.

Finally, the state's troubled history with Vermont Yankee should make regulators even more cautious. By an overwhelming vote, the Vermont Legislature in 2010 declined to approve continued operation of the Vermont Yankee plant. The plant was only allowed to continue operating after suing the state in federal court and forcing the decision to be struck down.

Vermont should not succumb to the hollow promises put forth in support of this risky deal. Whatever is decided, the plan for the future of the Vermont Yankee site will have significant impacts on Vermonters for years to come. A proposal this important needs to be backed up with real plans and the money to support them, which NorthStar has yet to do. As it stands, the plan will leave Vermonters as the guinea pigs of a shaky new venture that may set a dangerous precedent for furture transfers.

Sandra Levine is a Senior Attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier, www.clf.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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