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Shumlin, Ayer welcome closure of nuclear plant; wary of decommissioning

MONTPELIER (AP) — Vermont’s only nuclear power plant will shut down by the end of next year, ending a nasty legal battle over the future of the 40-year-old plant, Entergy Corp. announced Tuesday.
The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station is expected to cease power production after its current fuel cycle and will begin being decommissioned in the fourth quarter of 2014, the company said. The station will remain under the oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission throughout the decommissioning process.
The New Orleans-based company has been battling with the state since 2010, when the Vermont Senate voted against a measure that would have authorized a state board to grant Vermont Yankee a permit to operate for an additional 20 years. Lawmakers were concerned about the plant’s safety, age and misstatements by plant management about components at the reactor.
“This was an agonizing decision and an extremely tough call for us,” Leo Denault, Entergy’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Vermont Yankee has an immensely talented, dedicated and loyal workforce, and a solid base of support among many in the community. We recognize that closing the plant on this schedule was not the outcome they had hoped for, but we have reluctantly concluded that it is the appropriate action for us to take under the circumstances.”
Denault said that when it closes, the plant will be placed in “safe-store,” in which federal regulations allow it to be mothballed for up to 60 years while its radioactive components cool down before removal.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a statement released by spokesman Neil Sheehan that the federal agency would “continue its rigorous oversight of the plant through the rest of its operations and into and through decommissioning. We have a decommissioning process that details steps that would have to be taken by Entergy going forward.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin called the planned closure of Vermont Yankee “the right decision for Vermont as we move to a greener energy future. Entergy’s announcement today confirms what we have known for some time. Operating and maintaining this aging nuclear facility is too expensive in today’s world. Vermont utilities no longer have contracts with Vermont Yankee, and our regional grid is not reliant upon it for stability. Vermont has made clear its desire to move toward more sustainable, renewable sources of electricity, and many of our surrounding states are doing likewise.”
The decision to close Vermont Yankee was based on a number of financial factors, including low wholesale energy prices, high costs and what the company called a flawed market design that artificially deflates energy prices.
Nuclear plants have been under significant price competition due to the recent natural gas boom in the United States. Vermont Yankee, among the oldest and smallest plants in the country and located in a state with one of the nation’s strongest anti-nuclear movements, had long been considered among the most likely to be shuttered.
Vermont Yankee opened in 1972 in Vernon. In the past, the plant has provided as much as a third of the state’s electrical supply. Currently, nearly all of its power is shipped to electric companies in neighboring states.
After being granted the federal license it also needed for continued operation, Entergy sued the state and won a first round in federal court in Brattleboro.
The state appealed but largely lost earlier this month. Attorney General Bill Sorrell has said the ruling worked out well in one respect: The court overruled a part of the lower-court decision saying the state had violated the U.S. Constitution by trying to demand cut-rate power from Vermont Yankee if it were allowed to continue operating.
The company employs about 630 people, a staffing level that will gradually be reduced as the plant moves through the stages of decommissioning.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, a former member of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and the current House Majority whip, said she was pleased to hear of Vermont Yankee’s impending closure and discussed some of the state’s concerns moving forward.
“It’s all about the decommissioning,” Ayer said of the most pivotal task at hand.
With that in mind, Ayer said she’s very concerned about the “safe store” mothballing option that Entergy Corp. has identified as its desired course for Vermont Yankee.
“You basically put a cover over it and let it sit for up to 60 years,” Ayer said. “That means there will be security and a certain amount of maintenance as it’s shutting down… And remember, they haven’t added a penny to the decommissioning fund (for around a decade).”
“I think we’re looking at a big fight,” she said of anticipated differences of opinion on the decommissioning processes between Entergy and state officials.
“I think they have been getting prepared to minimize their financial exposure on this plant for quite a long time,” Ayer said. “We’ll see how the feds like that.”
Ayer believes Vermont Yankee’s closing will not place the state in an energy crisis.
“It adds a little more urgency to developing renewables and energy planning,” Ayer said of the plant’s closure. She hopes the state can eventually place another type of utility on the Vermont Yankee site to take advantage of its transmission grid.
Mary Powell, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power, anticipates no substantial impact to the state’s electricity supply.
“Entergy’s decision to close the plant for financial reasons will not affect GMP customers,” she said in a statement. “We have not purchased electricity from Vermont Yankee since March 2012 and there will be no immediate or direct impact on our customers. We have been very successful meeting our goals of providing our customers with low cost, low carbon and reliable electricity and will continue to do so, whether or not VY is operating.”
Other state and federal lawmakers weighed in on Tuesday’s Entergy announcement. 
“I am delighted that Entergy will shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant which has had so many problems in recent years,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “There is a strong desire on the part of the people of the state of Vermont to close the plant that was scheduled to operate for only 40 years.
“The closure will allow Vermont to focus on leading the nation toward safer and more economical sources of sustainable and renewable energy like solar, wind, geothermal and biomass,” added Sanders, a member of the Senate Energy and Environment Committees.
“The decision to close Vermont Yankee is long-delayed good news for the state of Vermont, but it comes with clear and troublesome concerns as well,” said Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell.
He echoed Ayer’s concerns about the “safe store” decommissioning process.
“The method of decommissioning is crucial,” he said. “Dry-cask storage for the better part of a century will render the site unusable for generations and is therefore unacceptable by any standard.  We hope to work out these concerns with Entergy over the next year. Rest assured, however: the Senate will not content itself with hope. We will have a weather eye on the decommissioning process, and will stand ready to steer the process as forcefully as is necessary to achieve the ultimate goal: returning the Vernon site to greenfield status.  And we will do everything in our power to see that those currently employed on-site at Yankee are held harmless during this important transition.”
Gov. Shumlin noted in a written statement that he had talked with Entergy Chairman and CEO Leo Denault on Monday“and we agreed to move beyond our past disputes and work cooperatively toward a timely shutdown and a smooth transition for VY workers and the surrounding communities in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. 
“I grew up in Windham County and I know that the closure of this plant will be a significant upheaval for the region, and for the state as a whole,” Shumlin continued. “We have been preparing for this day through education and economic development efforts in the region, and we will redouble our efforts now that the closure date for the plant is certain.
“For the workers at Vermont Yankee who will directly feel the pain of job loss, I pledge the resources of my administration to move quickly to provide the training and services they will need. I will work closely with the Legislature, our federal delegation, the local towns and business organizations, and my fellow governors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to support the Vermont Yankee workforce and the affected communities. We will also focus on the timely decommissioning of the plant to return the site to a greenfield capable of other productive economic uses as swiftly as possible.”
Addison Independent reporter John Flowers contributed to this report.

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