Vermont Yankee deal includes more money for cleanup
A deal released Friday calls for the plant's current and prospective owners to set aside nearly $200 million in additional funds to support decommissioning at the Vernon site.
Additionally, the companies agreed to new restoration standards including a "comprehensive assessment" of contamination at the property.
In return, three state agencies and several other parties have agreed to support the sale of the idled plant from Entergy to NorthStar Group Services. Those supporters include the Brattleboro-based New England Coalition, which had been the sale's harshest critic.
"We now consider ourselves allies and partners with NorthStar and will do our best to help them achieve a state-of-the-art, best-practices and environmentally responsible decommissioning, as free of nuclear pollution as possible," said Ray Shadis, a coalition board member and adviser.
But not everyone agrees with the compromise. The Conservation Law Foundation declined to sign on, with senior attorney Sandra Levine saying the deal "falls far short."
"Vermonters are the losers in the recent agreement aimed to sweeten the deal for the sale of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant," Levine said. "In a rush to secure a possible — and by no means certain — quick
cleanup of the site, the settlement excludes reasonable protection for Vermont communities."
Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee more than three years ago. The company's initial cleanup plan called for a prolonged period of dormancy that could have pushed the completion of decommissioning to 2075.
In contrast, NorthStar is pledging to have most of the site cleaned up by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026.
Entergy wants to complete the sale to NorthStar by the end of this year. The deal requires approval by both the Vermont Public Utility Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Vermont officials have been among those who have questioned NorthStar's ability to follow through. The biggest point of contention has been whether the company has planned thoroughly enough and set aside sufficient funding to finish decommissioning.
Over the past few months, state officials and the two companies have been negotiating to try and resolve their differences in order to present a formal agreement for the Public Utility Commission's review. Friday's memorandum of understanding is the result of those talks.
Besides NorthStar and Entergy, those agreeing to the deal were the state Public Service Department, the state attorney general's office and the state Agency of Natural Resources; the New England Coalition; the Elnu Abenaki tribe; Windham Regional Commission; and Vernon Planning and Economic Development Commission.
The memorandum of understanding features a significant amount of new money. For instance, NorthStar has agreed to increase its parent company support agreement - a form of backup financing for the Vermont Yankee project - from $125 million to $140 million.
NorthStar also is creating an escrow account that eventually must contain a minimum balance of $55 million. Withdrawals from that fund can happen only with state approval.
Additionally, NorthStar will buy a $30 million insurance policy to cover any "previously unknown or not fully characterized" nonradiological issues at the site. And the company will get a $25 million guarantee from Orano USA, a subcontractor on the Vermont Yankee job formerly known by the name AREVA.
Entergy also is kicking in some extra cash. The company agreed to put an extra $30 million into a site restoration trust for Vermont Yankee. And Entergy will put $40 million - money that comes from suing the federal government to recover spent fuel storage costs - into an escrow account.
Finances aside, the memorandum also sets out what Entergy and NorthStar called a "comprehensive reporting protocol" designed to keep state agencies informed about the decommissioning job and associated spending.
Site restoration standards make up another part of the deal. For instance, NorthStar has pledged to "attempt" to reduce the amount of residual radiation left on site from the levels in its original proposal - though there are no guarantees that will happen.
NorthStar also will perform a "comprehensive site investigation" that includes groundwater sampling for nonradiological contaminants as well as an assessment of below-grade structures. And the company will provide a "detailed description" of any concrete that might be buried on site, a response to previous controversy about so-called "rubblization" plans.
In a joint statement accompanying the memorandum, Entergy and NorthStar said the deal is a "significant milestone." If the Public Utility Commission approves the agreement, it will "accelerate the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee by decades and facilitate the eventual economic redevelopment of the site," the companies said.
State officials said they signed the deal because it "provides clarity on site restoration standards" and "provides assurance that the decommissioning and restoration project at Vermont Yankee will be completed in the near term, with sufficient financial resources and technical expertise."
"I'm very happy with the fact that the negotiations that we had were successful in addressing all but one party's concerns about this transaction," said Jim Porter, director of the Public Service Department's Public Advocacy Division.
Conservation Law Foundation, and anyone else who wants to question or scrutinize the deal, will have opportunities in the state's ongoing review process. There are plans for a public hearing, evidentiary hearings and discovery filings, though a new schedule for those proceedings has not yet been released.
Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director, said he encourages residents to review the deal "and turn out for the upcoming public hearing to share their thoughts."
But Campany also praised the settlement talks as "very fair and quite civil."
"I believe we found better proposed decommissioning, site restoration and funding-assurance outcomes through face-to-face discussions than would have been possible through the technical hearing and briefing process alone," Campany said.
Friday's memorandum of understanding also affects the federal review of the Vermont Yankee sale in one way: According to an accompanying settlement agreement, the state and New England Coalition have agreed to withdraw their requests to intervene in the NRC's proceedings, potentially speeding up that process.
Mike Faher can be contacted at email@example.com.
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