'Substantial progress' in Vermont Yankee sale talks

VERNON — State officials may be close to resolving their differences with the current and prospective owners of Vermont Yankee, potentially paving the way for the plant to change hands later this year.

On Thursday, representatives of three state agencies filed a motion asking the Vermont Public Utility Commission to delay all hearings scheduled this month on the proposed sale of the Vernon nuclear plant to NorthStar Group Services.

Officials said the delay would allow further negotiation and review of a new financial proposal from NorthStar and Entergy, the current owner.

While details are scarce, an Entergy executive confirmed that there have been productive talks among all entities involved in the Vermont Yankee sale deliberations.

Entergy and NorthStar "are engaged in discussions with the Vermont state agencies in an effort to resolve constructively the issues over which there has been disagreement," said Mike Twomey, Entergy Wholesale Commodities external affairs vice president.

"We have made substantial progress in that regard and are now engaging the other parties to the docket on those issues," Twomey added.

Entergy, which stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee a little over three years ago, wants to sell the plant and its decommissioning trust fund to NorthStar.

The New York-based demolition and environmental cleanup company says it can clear and restore most of the Vernon site as soon as 2026, which is decades faster than Entergy had planned.

Both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state Public Utility Commission are reviewing the transaction, which would be the first of its kind in the United States.

While some have cheered the accelerated decommissioning proposal, skeptics question whether NorthStar has the expertise and wherewithal to deliver on its plans. Vermont officials have been at the forefront of that debate, saying they see "significant risk" in the Entergy/NorthStar deal.

State officials have raised concerns about Entergy's assessment of contaminants at the site and NorthStar's plans for cleanup. Finances also have been a key issue, with state regulators saying they don't think NorthStar has made enough money available to cover unexpected problems and pay for long-term spent fuel storage at Vermont Yankee.

In December, as officials prepared for a busy January full of depositions and hearings on the sale, state Public Service Department officials filed testimony saying they felt better about NorthStar's expertise and cleanup plans.

But Brian Winn, the Public Service Department's finance and economics director, wrote that he still could not endorse the sale due to a lack of satisfactory financial responses from NorthStar and Entergy.

"By providing additional financial assurances, and by addressing the department's concerns regarding the existing assurances, the joint petitioners could demonstrate that the proposed transaction promotes the general good of the state," Winn wrote at the time.

Now, that appears to be happening.

Stephanie Hoffman, a Public Service Department special counsel, notified the Public Utility Commission on Dec. 5 that representatives of her department, the state Agency of Natural Resources and the state attorney general's office would be meeting with NorthStar and Entergy.

The purpose was to "review the terms of an amended financial assurance proposal that joint petitioners have developed responding to concerns raised by parties in this docket," Hoffman wrote.

Thursday's follow-up motion - filed by those same three state agencies - says that meeting happened Monday and follow-up talks are "ongoing."

"To allow those negotiations to proceed and to permit all interested parties sufficient time to consider the amended proposal," state officials wrote, the Public Utility Commission should delay technical hearings on the Vermont Yankee sale scheduled to start Jan. 22.

If the commission grants that delay, the state agencies say they will submit a status report on Vermont Yankee negotiations by Jan. 25.

State officials also want to put off the utility commission's public hearing scheduled for Jan. 18 in Brattleboro.

"The public is now on notice that negotiations are ongoing regarding an amended proposal," the state's motion says. "The state parties submit that a rescheduled public hearing closer to the start of technical hearings would provide a better opportunity for members of the public to hear about and offer comments" on a revised sale proposal.

The document says several other intervenors in the case, including the New England Coalition, Conservation Law Foundation and the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, are aware of the new proposal and have asked for more time to review it.

At this point, it's not clear what's in the new proposal. Neither Hoffman nor Jim Porter, director of the Public Service Department's public advocacy division, returned messages seeking comment.

A NorthStar spokesman declined comment. And Twomey, in his prepared statement, offered no details.

He did, however, express confidence that the Vermont Yankee transaction is moving forward.

"We remain committed to completing the sale to NorthStar by the end of this year," Twomey said.

Mike Faher can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.


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