Photo by Len Emery
The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon, seen from across the Connecticut River, has received state approval to operate until the end of this year.
MONTPELIER — The Vermont Public Service Board on Friday said it reluctantly approved letting the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station operate through the end of this year.
The board also approved a private deal between Entergy Nuclear and the Shumlin administration over the closing of Yankee that includes significant money for economic development, clean energy and site restoration. The deal also calls for a potential earlier decommissioning of the Vernon reactor.
But the board made clear that Entergy’s decision in August to shut down Yankee at the end of 2014 had an important effect on its ruling.
“If Entergy VY were planning to operate the VY station for another 20 years as originally requested, its track record may well have led us to find that ownership and operation would not promote the general good,” the board wrote.
“The company’s sustained record of misconduct has been troubling to observe over the years and has continued to trouble us as we determine whether to grant Entergy VY a license to operate,” the board wrote.
“While its decision to cease operations by the end of next year does not excuse Entergy VY’s past bad conduct, the decision does alter the perspective from which we contemplate that conduct, given that we are no longer assessing the legal and regulatory implications of granting an operating license for the long term,” wrote the three-person board led by James Volz.
The memorandum of understanding, reached in late December, calls for an accelerated timetable for the radiological cleanup of the Vernon site instead of a 60-year timetable.
Critics said the timetable was unenforceable and left it up to Entergy to decide.
The agreement also includes $10 million in economic development money for Windham County. Entergy also agreed to $25 million in seed money for the nonradiological, “green field” cleanup of the Vernon site, which sits on the banks of the Connecticut River.
The decision, issued at midday Friday, came a working day before an Entergy deadline of March 31 for the state regulators to approve the memorandum or watch the economic incentives disappear.
“The decision provides certainty and predictability for the hard workers at the plant, over $10 million of economic development funding for the region, and lets us focus on the important work of transitioning to a future after Vermont Yankee,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin in a statement. Shumlin had been elected in 2010 with the goal of shutting down Yankee, despite its location in his home county.
“Our energy future relies on a different path than the past,” Shumlin said.
Since March 2012, none of Yankee’s 620 megawatts of base load power is sold to Vermont utilities.
The decision prompted a short but positive statement from the president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, Bill Mohl.
“We are pleased that the board issued an amended certificate of public good and that it approved the memorandum of understanding. These actions are in the best interest of Vermont and all our stakeholders. Throughout the remainder of 2014, we will remain focused on the safe and reliable operation of Vermont Yankee,” he said.
Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said Friday that the first public implication from the agreement would be a $2 million payment from Entergy to the state to be used toward reviving the Windham County economy, which is expected to take a major hit with the loss of one of its largest and highest-paying employers by the end of the year.
Vermont Yankee employs about 620 people, with an average salary of $100,000.
Recchia said Entergy would follow that within 30 days with a $5.2 million release into the state’s Clean Energy Fund, money that has been held in escrow as Entergy fought a tax imposed on it in 2012 as a large generator.
“It’s a sound decision, and we’re moving forward with the agreement with Entergy,” Recchia said. “I hope it isn’t appealed.”
One big decision that wasn’t settled in the memorandum of understanding is whether Entergy can use money from Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund — which currently stands at $622 million — to pay for the transfer of spent nuclear fuel out of the spent fuel pool and into concrete and steel casks at a facility north of the reactor.
“We agreed to disagree,” Recchia said.
A timetable for transferring the old nuclear fuel, and eventually the fuel currently in the reactor core, is expected to be released by Entergy by the end of the month, Recchia said.
Environmental groups that were parties to the Public Service Board case issued news releases about the decision, and all said they were unhappy with it.
“The order sends a troubling message, suggesting that a company with the worst kind of record of misconduct could still merit a (certificate of public good),” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “It does nothing to discourage that kind of behavior from Entergy or any other company in the future.”
The Vermont Natural Resources Council, along with the Connecticut River Watershed Council, had focused largely on the hot water discharge from the plant into the Connecticut River and said that the issue still needed to be addressed.
“Updating VY’s discharge permit is long overdue, and we call on the Agency of Natural Resources to swiftly implement a revised discharge permit that protects the economical health of the Connecticut River,” the joint statement read.
The New England Coalition, noting that it had fought Entergy getting a new state permit for six years, expressed the strongest disappointment in the decision.
“We believe that the board’s order cuts contrary to statute and to case law,” wrote Raymond Shadis in an email to supporters and the press, adding that the coalition was “weighing the option” of filing a motion to reconsider or a motion to amend, “more protective of the environment and more responsive to community sentiment.”
“Make no mistake, we recognize that the PSB, their attorneys, the (attorney general) and the rest did the best that they could do, given what little leverage they had, to come to a happy settlement,” Shadis said, adding, “the (memorandum) leaves Entergy entirely in charge. This is not so much a settlement as a payoff and a capitulation.”
Other board members signing the decision were David Coen and John Burke. Coen has since retired from the board.
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