VERNON, Vt. — The U.S. Department of Justice filed an anti-trust suit last week to stop the merger between the country’s two main low-level nuclear waste disposal companies, one of which is a key player in the proposed sale of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
The two companies are Energy Solutions Inc. and Waste Control Specialists, which is involved in the Vermont Yankee sale. The two companies control waste disposal for 40 states, and Waste Control Specialists run the facility where all of Vermont’s low-level nuclear waste is slated to go, even before the proposed sale.
The Department of Justice anti-trust lawsuit claims the proposed merger of the two dominant waste companies would drive up the costs of nuclear waste disposal and decommissioning of nuclear power plants — and ultimately the cost would be borne by ratepayers.
“Eliminating competition between ES and WCS would have wide-ranging effects throughout the United States,” the Justice Department’s lawsuit said. The proposed merger “would create a near-monopoly ... at a time when utilities are preparing to bid out nuclear reactor decommissioning projects worth billions of dollars.”
The two companies have been involved in a fierce price war, according to the lawsuit, and had been suing and counter-suing each other until striking a $367 million sale agreement in 2015.
Low-level radioactive waste is virtually everything from a nuclear power plant but nuclear fuel: it includes plant components, fuel rods, resins and filters, as well as contaminated dirt and clothing. High-level radioactive waste is the fuel used in reactors; in Vermont Yankee’s case, it is currently being stored in the plant’s spent fuel pool and in a dry-cask storage facility on the grounds of Vermont Yankee.
Entergy Nuclear has announced it was selling Vermont Yankee, which has been closed since December 2014, to NorthStar Inc., which in turn said it was partnering with three other companies, including Waste Control Specialists, which operates a low-level radioactive waste site in west Texas and which is the designated site for nuclear waste for the state of Vermont.
NorthStar said its goal was to start the decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee plant in 2020, decades earlier than Entergy had estimated. The sale has to be approved by federal and state regulators.
The lawsuit said since Waste Control started operating its facility in Andrews, Texas, the two companies have been engaged in a fierce price war, and the price of waste disposal has dropped substantially.
Neither the Nuclear Regulatory Commission nor Entergy Nuclear would comment on the lawsuit. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said NRC had nothing to do with the lawsuit. He said Energy Solutions and Waste Control Specialists were the two main low-level radioactive waste disposal companies in the country. He said it was too soon to say what effect the court action would have on the proposed sale.
Energy Solutions, is based in Utah and owned by a Delaware corporation called Rockwell Holdco Inc., and Waste Control Specialists is owned by Valhi Inc., headquartered in Dallas, Texas.
Marty Cohn, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, said Vermont Yankee did business with both companies. He said he didn’t know if Entergy’s disposal costs had dropped in the past couple of years, as claimed in the Department of Justice lawsuit.
Richard Saudek, a Montpelier attorney who specializes in energy issues, and who is one of two appointees by Gov. Peter Shumlin to the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission, said he didn’t think the anti-trust suit would have an effect on the proposed sale.
Vermont paid the state of Texas $25 million, and Andrews County $2.5 million, where the WCS facility is, with a guarantee that all of the state’s low-level radioactive waste would have a disposal site. “It is definitely in the interests of Vermont and Texas that the waste facility in west Texas succeed. Shipments there we believe are somewhat less than had been anticipated and has resulted in some financial stress,” Saudek said.
“Shipments have increased over the last year. It would cause a lot of problems if that waste facility were unable to continue,” he said.