Decommission expert says cost estimates might be low

MONTPELIER - A nuclear decommissioning expert got tough questions Tuesday on whether the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is saving enough to pay for its eventual dismantling.

William A. Cloutier Jr. testified before the state's Public Service Board and answered questions from lawyers for two groups critical of atomic power.

In one exchange, lawyer Sandra Levine of the Conservation Law Foundation asked whether there was "a greater likelihood that costs are understated rather than overstated," in projections on decommissioning costs done by a consultant to Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Nuclear.

"If you were to do a probability analysis ... you might come to that conclusion," Cloutier replied.

Behind Tuesday's often dry and technical testimony rests an issue hotly debated by lawmakers and the administration of Gov. James Douglas.

The Legislature recently passed a bill for the second straight year that calls on Entergy to put up hundreds of millions of dollars in cash or other financial instruments to shore up a decommissioning fund that has been shrinking because of recent market turmoil.

Douglas vetoed last year's bill and is expected to do so with this year's version as well.

Costs to decommission Vermont Yankee were put at $655 million to $932 million in a 2006 study by Cloutier's employer, Entergy subsidiary TLG Services Inc. of Bridgeport, Conn. In a report this year to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Entergy estimated the cost at $909 million.

Meanwhile, the fund has been shrinking in the recent economic downturn - from $440 million in December 2007 to $347 million at the end of February.

Tuesday's hearing came as part of a broader board review on whether Vermont Yankee, whose 40-year operating license expires in 2012, should be allowed to continue running for another 20 years.

The board began more than two weeks of technical hearings Monday on various issues related to Vermont's lone reactor, located in Vernon in the state's southeast corner, within sight across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire and 3.6 miles from the Massachusetts border.

Cloutier responded to many of the questions by saying he didn't know the answer. He said he couldn't recall the specifics of a 2001 study he did that predicted not that the decommissioning fund would come up short, but that it would have significant extra funds.

Cloutier also acknowledged under questioning by Jared Margolis, a lawyer for the nuclear watchdog group New England Coalition, that he had used current prices for tools and materials when projecting the future costs of decommissioning.

He acknowledged that the more recent studies of decommissioning costs continue to count on being able to ship highly radioactive nuclear waste to a long-planned federal waste site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

That's despite U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's recent declaration that Yucca Mountain no longer is in the running to host the site, and that no alternative has been found.