March 28, 2020

Yankee closing process panned > Panel recommends singular oversight

AUGUSTA — A legislative committee is recommending that oversight of the Maine Yankee decommissioning process be consolidated into a single entity.

At a meeting Thursday, members of the Joint Select Committee to Oversee Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. voted unanimously to recommend the consolidation. Members expressed concerns that state government is on the verge of accepting a far-flung watchdog policy whose end result would be the dilution of funding and public oversight.

Sen. Marge Kilkelly of Wiscasset told her colleagues of her fear that the budget for the various agencies looking into the decommissioning of Maine Yankee would continue to grow unless the state acted quickly and brought the competing groups under one roof.

“I am concerned that by the time it gets done, there will be more oversight on a plant that is winding down than there was when it was open,” Kilkelly said. “If anything, the layers are increasing instead of decreasing.”

The joint committee was formed in response to the decision to close Maine Yankee. Maine Yankee’s owners voted last May to close their 840 megawatt nuclear power plant in Wiscasset after engineering studies determined that the cost of keeping it operating for the final 10 years of its license would be prohibitive.

At the time of the owner’s decision, the plant’s reactor had already been off-line since December 1996 when a Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspection uncovered potential safety problems.

Current estimates put the cost of decommissioning the plant and storing its high-level radioactive waste on the plant’s grounds at more than $500 million.

While Maine Yankee proceeds along the projected 10-year path toward decommissioning, committee members lamented the fact that numerous state agencies have started keeping track of the company’s movements.

“I count 13 separate fingers in the pie,” Sen. Philip Harriman, R-Cumberland, told his colleagues. “It’s like a Chinese fire drill.”

Committee chairman, Sen. Richard “Spike” Carey, D-Kennebec, produced a list of five public bodies that received annual fees totaling $540,000 from Maine Yankee rate payers.

The payments ranged from $120,000 for the state Nuclear Safety Adviser, $100,000 for the Department of Human Services, $180,000 for the Nuclear Safety Inspector and $90 for the Public Health Laboratory, “for a plant that’s not generating any income,” Carey said. “I think basically they are trying to fund part of their budget off the back of a plant that is not running.”

Public Advocate Stephen Ward described the proposal to consolidate oversight as “a reasonable one” but questioned whether it would result in less spending.

Ward reminded the committee that diligence on safety matters was just as critical during the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant as it was when the plant was running. He said “close examination” by the public was required on items such as on-site storage of high level radioactive waste and disposal of low level waste. Ward agreed that consolidation of effort would benefit the public.

“Minimizing turf fights and pulling together the resources is a very high priority,” he said. “I have seen a lot of shin-kicking and turf-fighting and it’s not very productive.”

While supporting the call for consolidating the state’s efforts on the decommissioning of Maine Yankee, Rep. Benjamin L. Rines, Jr., D-Wiscasset, also urged taking a vigilant approach to the process.

“They need to be watched,” Rines said of Maine Yankee. “They need to be overseen now as much if not more.”

Besides recommending a single entity to oversee the shutdown procedure, the committee also voted unanimously to submit its final report to the legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Utilities and Energy. The report was complied through a series of fact-finding hearings and public meetings in the Wiscasset area over the past nine months. The report outlines the steps that led up to the decision to close Maine Yankee and its effect on the economy of Lincoln County and the state.

Committee members emphasized their call for consolidation of the various agencies would need the support of the King Administration as well as both houses of the Legislature to become a reality.

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