Vermont Yankee: NorthStar makes sales pitch to area communities

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BRATTLEBORO — In its quest to purchase Vermont Yankee, NorthStar Group Services has filed reams of paper with state and federal regulators.

But for many who aren't directly involved in those reviews, the New York-based company's plans — and its motivations for buying a shut-down nuclear plant — have remained obscure since the proposed sale was announced in November.

NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State has set out to change that. State spent Monday in the Brattleboro area, meeting with a variety of locals including Vernon officials, legislators and business leaders. The meetings did not include anti-nuclear groups. But State plans to continue his outreach efforts and believes he can make a convincing case — no matter the audience — that NorthStar's approach is the right one for cleaning up Vermont Yankee.

"I think what we propose here is a uniquely bipartisan approach in terms of for or against (nuclear power)," State said. "This is an environmental project to remove a source of radiological contamination. I think everybody, when they think about it in those terms, is going to support this."

Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 and began preparing the plant for SAFSTOR. That's an extended period of dormancy under which decommissioning can take up to six decades.

In early November, however, Entergy announced an agreement to sell the plant and its decommissioning trust fund — which at last accounting stood at $561.6 million — to NorthStar.

The company has pledged to finish decommissioning and restoring most of the site by 2030 and possibly as soon as 2026. Both the Vermont Public Service Board and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission have to sign off on those plans before the sale can go through.

State had made plans to come to southern Vermont for a March 14 public hearing scheduled as part of the Public Service Board's review. That hearing was canceled due to snow, and it's been rescheduled for April 6 at Vernon Elementary. State says he's looking forward to that hearing and has no problem with the state's lengthy review, which is expected to extend into early 2018.

"I think it's a good process," he said. "Some might view it as very cumbersome. I don't see it that way. I think it's the right way to do it."

At the same time, he wants to have conversations outside of the regulatory process. Hence Monday's meetings, where he fielded a variety of questions about NorthStar's experience, finances and intentions in Vernon.

State said he wanted to ensure that he could address those inquiries directly.

"Early on, I just felt like it would be foolhardy to send someone else and have them represent the company," he said. "It's ultimately my responsibility to make sure this project is conducted correctly."

NorthStar's message at the Brattleboro-area meetings did not differ from its message in regulatory filings: The company bills itself as "the largest demolition and asbestos-abatement company in the world," with experience taking down fossil-fuel plants that are bigger than Yankee.

NorthStar's nuclear experience is limited, but State has touted a "dream team" of partners on the Vermont Yankee project. That includes Paris-based AREVA, which has done nuclear decommissioning work and is expanding its U.S. presence.

State is a nuclear engineer. He also has portrayed himself as a careful manager of large, complicated projects, and he argues that NorthStar can take advantage of its expertise and industry partners to get the Vermont Yankee job done faster and much more cheaply than Entergy could.

"This is a series of many small projects," State said. "The key to being successful is logistics and managing all these small projects in a very efficient way. That's what we do for a living."

That's the overall pitch, but those who met with State brought their own questions. The town of Vernon maintained close ties with Entergy even as the company was highly controversial elsewhere. The question for town officials is whether that partnership will continue if Vermont Yankee is sold.

Vernon Selectboard Chairman Josh Unruh got the answer he wanted.

"They're going to be an advocate for Vernon, which is exactly what we're looking for," Unruh said. "We had a fantastic relationship with Entergy, and we want to carry that forward with NorthStar, as well."

Kate O'Connor, chairwoman of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, said she talked with State about "the importance of being a participant in the panel."

The legislation that created VNDCAP grants two seats on the panel to the owner of Vermont Yankee. But O'Connor said she's more interested in ensuring that NorthStar will be "active participants" in the group's meetings.

"I wanted to go beyond just their being on the panel," she said. "It's the flow of information that the panel needs, and also the public."

If the NorthStar purchase goes through, O'Connor said, "they're going to be part of this community for at least the next 10 years ... working on a project that's important. So I think they do need to introduce themselves to the entire community."

While much of the discussion of NorthStar's plans has centered on the environmental impacts of decommissioning, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. Executive Director Adam Grinold had a different purpose in mind when sitting down with State.

"There are plenty of people already advocating, and rightfully so, about the health and safety outcomes (of decommissioning)," Grinold said.

But his organization is focused on economic development. Grinold expects to "be a voice in the room" on that topic prior to and throughout decommissioning, as well as afterward when the land becomes available for reuse.

Though the Windham Region landed $10 million in economic development funding through a state settlement with Entergy, Grinold points out that the impact of the plant's closure far outweighs that allocation.

"We've got about a $110 million problem," Grinold said. "And we have, though the (settlement agreement), $10 million in funding. Our focus is that we continue to advocate for the

regional economy."

As communications director for the Vermont Energy Partnership, Guy Page has been an unabashed advocate of NorthStar's plans. Page invited NorthStar to a meeting of business and community leaders at the Chesterfield Inn in West Chesterfield, N.H. He said about 40 people listened to State provide "more depth" on his company's decommissioning plan.

"A lot of people just wanted to know, how is this going to work?" Page said. "I think NorthStar recognizes that people don't know who they are, and this is the kind of project that needs explanation. And they are addressing that."

State plans to keep talking about NorthStar's proposal. He expects to travel to Montpelier soon, and he wants to reach out to Vermont's congressional delegation.

Asked whether he's willing to also sit down with anti-nuclear organizations, State pointed to meetings associated with "the long regulatory process ahead" as well as upcoming meetings of the citizens advisory panel.

NorthStar administrators "look forward to taking advantage of those additional opportunities to meet with and answer questions from a diverse group of stakeholders, including those who have historically been active on Vermont Yankee issues," he said.

Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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