State, Entergy spar on contamination question
At a meeting in Brattleboro late last week, representatives from plant owner Entergy and the Agency of Natural Resources clashed over whether there's been sufficient investigation of nonradiological contaminants at the shut-down Vernon nuclear plant.
Peter Walke, the agency's deputy secretary, said it's difficult to determine whether a New York company's plans to buy and decommission the plant are viable without more facts about pollutants such as PCBs and oil.
"There are significant questions to be answered," Walke said.
But Joe Lynch, Vermont Yankee's government affairs manager, argued that there is plenty of contamination information in a "very detailed" 2014 site assessment. Further characterization of pollutants at the plant, he said, isn't scheduled to happen until decommissioning starts.
"The agency has more questions. We perfectly understand that," Lynch said. "It's a timing issue. It's not an issue of whether we're going to do it or not."
Timing has become an important factor in Vermont Yankee negotiations.
The plant, which stopped producing power in December 2014, initially was scheduled for a slow-motion decommissioning project that could take up to 60 years. But that's been accelerated by Entergy's plan to sell the plant to NorthStar Group Services.
The New York company has pledged to finish decommissioning and restoring most of the site by 2030, and to do it much more cheaply than Entergy could.
The transaction is scheduled to close by the end of 2018. But it requires approvals from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Service Board.
At a Thursday night meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, representatives from three state offices - ANR, the Public Service Department and the attorney general's office - detailed their efforts to scrutinize the Vermont Yankee sale.
When Walke took his turn, he claimed the state hasn't yet seen an assessment of nonradiological contamination at Vermont Yankee - at least not "one that we deem complete."
While radiological materials fall under the NRC's purview, nonradiological waste is the state's responsibility. And Walke said there's a direct connection between nonradiological pollution at the plant and NorthStar's financial ability to restore the site to state standards.
"It's part of the discussion right now," Walke said in a later interview. "If we're going to talk about whether or not they've set aside enough money (for cleanup), we have to know, what are the assumptions that they're using to put aside that money."
Lynch countered by citing the 2014 site assessment. Vermont Yankee administrators have characterized that document as "a good faith effort by (Entergy) to consolidate into one source a summary of the historical environmental and radiological condition of the site."
The 60-page document includes a detailed discussion of contaminants, identifying and describing 134 areas where "current or former activities may have resulted in nonradiological impacts potentially significant to the decommissioning effort."
Phrases like "may have" and "potentially significant" provide the key to the current dispute between Entergy and the state.
Entergy's 2014 site assessment drew on sources such as plant records and interviews with employees. But it also says each of the possibly contaminated areas "will be further characterized as it becomes more accessible during decommissioning to determine the extent to which it may have been impacted."
That presents a conundrum for state officials, since current plans call for decommissioning to start only after NorthStar has finalized its purchase of Vermont Yankee. That means any further information about pollutants at the site will come too late to be used in the state's review of the plant sale.
Jim Matteau, a Westminster resident who sits on the decommissioning advisory panel, said he's concerned that state agencies would be "undermined" by a lack of information about nonradiological pollutants.
"The whole (review) process would suffer," Matteau said.
He added: "And really, I think that the non-nuclear issues are the real ones to worry about."
Others echoed that point, saying cleanup bills at other nuclear plants have escalated dramatically due to the discovery of pollutants.
Adding unfamiliarity with NorthStar into that equation leads some observers to question the validity of the company's cleanup plan.
"We feel very comfortable with Entergy's financial situation," Walke said. "We don't know about NorthStar. It makes that lack of (pollutant) information more of a challenge."
In regulatory filings and in community appearances, NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State has touted his company's experience, resources and expertise. He previously told the advisory panel that NorthStar has broken the Vermont Yankee project into more than 900 elements, each with its own budget and schedule.
Any budget overruns, State has said, will come from NorthStar's pocket and not from the plant's trust fund.
"This is a series of many small projects," State said in a recent interview. "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."
The company also is offering financial backups including a $125 million "support agreement" available for decommissioning "in the unlikely event that (performance) bonds are unavailable or inadequate."
State officials say they're not taking such promises at face value.
"One question is, will that money actually be there if needed," said Vermont Assistant Attorney General Kyle Landis-Marinello said at Thursday's meeting.
And if it's not, he added, "who pays?"
"The transaction looks good if we can get this site cleaned up quickly," Landis-Marinello said. "But our office wants to - along with the other agencies - kick the tires and make sure cleanup is going to be done properly and that the costs are not going to fall on Vermont taxpayers."
As part of its effort to investigate the Vermont Yankee deal, the Agency of Natural Resources says it's not done trying to get more information about nonradiological contamination.
In a written response to Entergy's 2014 site assessment, the agency asked detailed questions about issues like petroleum-polluted soil, lead waste and "possible PCB contamination in wire sheathing, caulking and paints throughout the plant."
The agency also, as part of the Public Service Board's sale review, has submitted more questions about nonradiological contamination and what methods NorthStar has used to evaluate it. Responses from NorthStar and Entergy are due early next month.
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