Vt. Yankee closing details loom large for region
SUNDERLAND — With the Vermont Public Service Board due to decide in a few days on terms of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant continuing to operate until year’s end, a nuclear expert expressed concern this week on the terms of an agreement negotiated by the state’s governor and plant owner Entergy.
Marvin Resnikoff, an expert on nuclear waste management, was joined by University of Massachusetts Center for Economic Development John R. Mullin for a Sunderland Library talk on “Closing Vermont Yankee: How to Do it Safely.”
Mullin, who co-authored a 1997 study on the impact of the Yankee Atomic plant’s closing in Rowe earlier in that decade and its impact on the community, said he believes the federal government has a responsibility to provide for economic recovery from the plant’s closing, not simply in southern Vermont, but in Franklin County and in southern New Hampshire as well.
Resnikoff, a Vermont-based international consultant on radioactive waste management issues, said his main concern with the tentative agreement negotiated by Gov. Peter Shumlin in December — which includes a stipulation that the Public Service Board issue its Certificate for Public Good by Monday — is that it has left up to Entergy to decide when there’s enough money in the decommissioning fund, totaling a little over $600 million, to pay for decommissioning costs estimated at more than $800 million. A full radiological cleanup, Entergy has estimated, would cost $1.06 billion to return the 148-acre riverside property to “green field” status.
“The governor thinks he’s gotten a good deal, but this depends on whether funds will accrue faster than the costs to actually decommission the plant, and there’s no guarantee about that,” especially since Louisiana-based Entergy has not been required to contribute to the decommissioning fund since it bought the plant in 2002 for $180 million. The current scenario is for investments to increase the fund’s level faster than the rising cost of decommissioning — a concern raised by some of the more than a dozen people attending Thursday night’s presentation.
The agreement, which also calls for Entergy to back off on plans to sue the state, to provide $10 million over five years to help the local economy, $25 million over four years toward a site restoration fund and $5 million to the State of Vermont, would put the plant on a faster decommissioning track than the 60 years allowed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
However, Resnikoff said, “There’s no date-certain when this process will actually be finished — or begin. Unfortunately, if we allow the plant to sit there for some time, the workforce will essentially be gone, the people who actually know the nuts and bolts of the plant itself.”
He also raised concerns about requirements that some want to see placed on “merchant plant” owners like Vermont Yankee, in which the owners are investors rather than local utility ratepayers.
“My fear in this case is that the company will just go bankrupt.”
Mullin, pointing out that more than 100 of those Vermont Yankee workers with an average salary of $100,000 or more are from Franklin County, said there’s a need for a federal policy that assures economic aid when nuclear plants are closed in this country, in the same way that the federal Office of Economic Adjustment assists in the economic distress to a region following the closure of military bases.
“There is no federal agency that has a responsibility to look after communities after a closing,” said Mullin, calling the $10 million offered by Entergy as part of its tentative agreement “really quite a pittance” when spread over the three-state region and five years.
When it comes to cleaning up the site of a commercial nuclear reactor, Mullin said, “The company will meet the letter of the law and nothing more. Once an agreement is in place, it’s fixed.”
Especially in rural communities, where there may be few other economic opportunities, Mullin said, there can be a decline in property values, tax revenue, volunteerism, school enrollments and little new investment because of “a stigma that doesn’t go away” — especially with highly radioactive spent fuel remaining on site indefinitely.
Mullin said the Center for Economic Development is working with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and its counterparts in southern Vermont and New Hampshire to plan a conference, probably next year, to help develop a strategy for dealing with the aftermath of nuclear plant closings.
Mullin, who also called for local and regional input in how the decommissioning process proceeds, was questioned about the political reality of the federal government taking on an added responsibility to bail out rural economies where for-profit nuclear plants have been closed, especially when there is no prospect of a national repository for accepting their high-level waste.
There are a handful of nuclear plants where closing is imminent, he said. But as the number of those regions around the country rise, the need will become more apparent.
“Somebody has to do it,” he said.