Vermont Yankee sale settlement may be imminent

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VERNON — The current and prospective owners of Vermont Yankee are pushing for a quick settlement with state regulators who are reviewing the idled nuclear plant's potential sale. But there's no deal yet, and a status conference in the case scheduled for Thursday morning was canceled by the state Public Utility Commission. Nevertheless, new filings express cautious optimism that state officials, current owner Entergy and proposed buyer NorthStar Group Services are making progress on a memorandum of understanding that would resolve their differences.

Entergy and NorthStar "are hopeful that such a signing will occur within a short period of time, but it is also possible that negotiations will break down," the companies' attorneys wrote in documents filed with the utility commission.

Other parties also have gotten involved in settlement talks, including the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition. The anti-nuclear group "hopes that this proceeding will be resolved by an agreement that is entered into by all parties," according to a new state filing.

Entergy ceased producing power at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 and wants to sell the Vernon plant — along with its decommissioning trust fund — to NorthStar by the end of this year. The sale is subject to approvals from the utility commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NorthStar has pledged to undertake an accelerated cleanup project that would restore most of the site as soon as 2026. Entergy's much-slower decommissioning plan could stretch to 2075.

But some question NorthStar's expertise and financial wherewithal to get the job done. Vermont officials from the Agency of Natural Resources, Public Service Department and attorney general's office have raised concerns about proposed cleanup standards and contingency funding, among other issues. Those agencies now are in the midst of closed-door settlement talks with Entergy and NorthStar. While the Public Utility Commission still has final say on the sale, an agreement would be a significant step toward state approval of the deal.

A series of hearings scheduled this month were postponed due to the settlement negotiations. On Wednesday, the three state agencies filed updates saying talks are continuing.

"The state parties are pleased to report that negotiations regarding an amended proposal have proceeded in earnest and have included representatives of all other parties and intervenors to the docket that expressed an interest in participation," officials wrote in a utility commission filing.

Jim Porter, director of the Public Service Department's public advocacy division, reiterated that "our primary concerns are with the financial wherewithal of NorthStar."

But Porter declined to discuss specifics of the talks or characterize the possible substance of a memorandum of understanding.

"I think that, thus far, (negotiations) have been positive," Porter said. "But none of the parties has an agreement yet."

Neither NorthStar nor Entergy commented on the status of settlement talks aside from their joint status update filed with the utility commission. But it's clear that the companies want to get a deal done as soon as possible, as they requested that the commission designate Feb. 1 "as the date by which a (memorandum of understanding) or settlement agreement must be signed."

All involved were scheduled to provide an in-person update on the talks to the utility commission Thursday morning. The parties and the commission also must hash out a revised schedule for the state's review. But that hearing was canceled because "the commission concluded that it was premature," officials noted in a filing later in the day. It has been rescheduled for Feb. 5.

By Feb. 1, the commission wants another update from the state, Entergy and NorthStar. Another effect of the settlement talks is that New England Coalition — the most consistent critic of NorthStar's plans — now is talking directly with the company. A Wednesday filing said the coalition and NorthStar have held two negotiation sessions and will meet again next week "to see if further progress is possible."

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


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