This article first appeared in the Sunday January 12, 2014, edition of the Rutland Herald / Times Argus
The announcement before Christmas that the state of Vermont and Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, had reached an agreement about its closure and one final year of operation left many folks breathing a collective and hopeful sigh of relief.
The initial reports seemed promising. Entergy and the state rolled up their sleeves, put their bad blood behind them and found some common ground.
Money would be available for economic development in Windham County to help build up its economy without Vermont Yankee. And money would also be available for more renewable power to further Vermont’s transition to cleaner power.
A path was laid out for a speedier cleanup, and the fights about back taxes and legal fees that have already exceeded more than $6 million would end. That hopeful news came a day before Christmas and was regarded as a welcome present by many. But actual delivery on some of the promises will be as elusive as Santa Claus and his reindeer — more in the realm of things we like to believe in, rather than the reality of what will actually happen.
The agreement calls for quick approval by the Vermont Public Service Board. It must be fully accepted by the end of March or all bets are off.
In the coming month, the parties will examine the agreement, and the state and Entergy will explain why the settlement should be approved. An additional public hearing will be held Tuesday, January 14 and a final day of technical hearings will take place at the end of the month.
Given Entergy’s past track record, there is good reason to be skeptical about the proposed settlement. Vermont has been down this road before.
A previous agreement required Vermont Yankee to close by March 2012. Almost two years later, the plant is still running. Rather than shut down, Entergy sued the state, claiming Vermont’s requirements were preempted and precluded by federal law.
Vermonters have learned a lot about preemption in the past few years — and the importance of avoiding obligations that may run afoul of this principle. It is thus telling that the proposed settlement reserves Entergy’s “right to challenge any requirement or obligation imposed by state law on the ground that such law is preempted … ”
In view of Entergy’s past legal challenges, we can expect these new obligations will be honored only when they suit Entergy’s needs.
Some of the thorniest but perhaps most important issues in the settlement concern the plant’s decommissioning and site cleanup. The Vermont Yankee plant began operating in the 1970s, a century after Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone conversation. No one expected that the plant’s closure and cleanup might not even begin until another full century had passed. Yet even with the current agreement, that is likely.
The funds available now for decommissioning are about half what is needed. Entergy has not added a dime to the fund since it purchased the plant in 2002 and has relied instead on its investment savvy to grow the fund.
Until the fund at least doubles in value, there will be no decommissioning. Given past performance of the stock market, that may take a while.
Even if the fund grows rapidly, Entergy alone will determine when there is enough money to begin decommissioning. And it’s only after Entergy makes the decision that it must seek federal approval to begin decommissioning within 120 days. Nothing stands in the way of Entergy waiting 60 years before it begins to decommission and clean up the site.
In the end Vermont will still have a tired, old — but closed — nuclear plant for decades to come. This is a disappointing reality that belies at least some of the spirited sugar coating and hopes about the agreement’s effect.