by Bruce Edwards Vermont Business Magazine At the center of the Vermont Yankee story is Vernon, a town of 2,200 at the very southeastern part of the state. The nuclear power plant buoyed the local economy and the town’s tax base for decades until the plant ceased operation in December 2014. When it was operating Vermont Yankee at its peak had more than 600 employees who earned an annual wage of $105,000, according to a 2014 study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.
The state Public Utilities Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are now reviewing the proposed sale of the plant from Entergy to NorthStar Group Services.
NorthStar in turn would demolish the plant, dispose of the nuclear contaminated debris and low-level waste, and make the site ready for redevelopment between 2026 and 2030, far earlier than Entergy’s date of 2075.
(Because there is no long-term federal storage facility, the highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods will remain at the site in cement casks for the foreseeable future.)
The negotiated agreement resulting in a memorandum of understanding was reached in March 2018 between the parties, state agencies and intervenors that would allow the sale to go through.
Vernon Select Board Chairman Josh Unruh said the town supports the sale to NorthStar. Unruh said the town also received additional assurances from NorthStar contained in a side agreement.
“We were in full support of the MOU,” Unruh said. “We actually hired our own attorney to be involved in the process and hired a nuclear waste expert as well to make sure the cleanup standards were what they should be for the town of Vernon.”
While critics have questioned NorthStar’s experience and the deep pockets necessary to follow through on the project,
Unruh said the town has confidence that the company can do the job. The sale includes the transfer of the Yankee de-commissioning fund to NorthStar.
“It was our opinion there was enough money in there (decommissioning fund) to begin with and then NorthStar and Entergy have both provided some additional assurances through the MOU above and beyond what was already there,” he said.
The Conservation Law Foundation remains unconvinced that the MOU is in the best interests of the state and as a result was the only intervenor not to sign the agreement.
There have also been questions about NorthStar’s expertise. The company’s previous experience involved only smaller research reactors.
“Vermonters are the losers in a recent agreement aimed to sweeten the deal for the sale of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant,” said CLF Senior Attorney Sandra Levine in a statement issued March 2. “In a rush to secure a possible – and by no means certain – quick clean-up of the site, the settlement excludes reasonable protection for Vermont communities. The deal Entergy and NorthStar proposed leaves Vermonters vulnerable to picking up the tab if something goes wrong.”
CLF will participate in the upcoming hearings at the Vermont Public Utility Commission. You can read more about CLF's position on the proposed deal here.
For the town, the plant’s closure had a seismic effect on the tax base.
“It really hasn’t been easy,” Unruh said. “Over the last few years we reduced our municipal budget by 20 percent and we’ve still seen a 20 percent increase in taxes even with that 20 percent reduction.”
While property values have rebounded a bit, he said the quicker the site can be redeveloped the quicker the town can recover a chunk of its tax base.
Once the decommissioning is complete, the town has some ideas to redevelopment the site. Primary among them is for the PUC to allow the newest office building on site to be repurposed.
“So that’s going to play a big factor for us whether we get to keep that office building,” Unruh said.
Chris Campany of the Windham Regional Commission said if the PUC and the NRC approve the sale to NorthStar “this is ramping up the timeline considerably to get that site decommissioned and the site restored and I think we have greater clarity now as to what those site restoration standards are going to be.”
As one of the intervenors in the case before the PUC, the commission had to rely on the state’s expertise before signing on to the MOU, Campany said.
He said the commission was limited in its information because it declined to sign the confidentiality agreement. He said as a commission it would be very difficult to control documents shared with its commission members.
“So we really had to rely on the state and its experts and the experts of the other petitioners,” Campany said, “to help us understand whether NorthStar’s formulas for pricing out the different jobs that are required and the financial mechanisms they’re using whether they made sense.”
Yankee was the town’s financial anchor and still accounts for a major chunk of the tax base but at a decreasing amount. Unruh said the town’s commercial tax base also includes the First Light commercial dam on the Connecticut River, Cersosimo Lumber Company and a number of large family farms.