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Decommissioning specialists increasingly buy up closed plants 
Job done in years not decades, and for half the expected cost

The spent fuel pool stores fuel assemblies at the Entergy Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon on Oct. 2 Photographer: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The fastest growing part of the nuclear industry in the U.S. involves a small but expanding group of companies that specialize in tearing reactors down faster and cheaper than ever before.

After Entergy Corp. shut its Vermont nuclear plant in 2014, the utility planned to wait until 2068 to dismantle it using a $510 million decommissioning trust fund that would appreciate over time to cover $1.2 billion in anticipated costs. Instead, Entergy sold the plant in January to Northstar Group Services Inc., which plans to do the job by 2026 at a much reduced cost.

The trick: Northstar would avoid up to $8 million a year in fuel-storage costs, and use the trust fund to get paid for the work. And once the job’s done, they get 45% of whatever’s left in the fund. With nine other plants expected to shut by 2025, others are moving to replicate the strategy.

“This business really wasn’t there a few years ago,” said Scott State, Northstar’s chief executive officer, by telephone. “It’s a growth business, and will be for many years.”

The nuclear industry has struggled to compete against a flood of cheap natural gas, and the oncoming rush of solar and wind power. Besides Entergy’s Vermont Yankee facility, five nuclear plants have closed nationwide since 2013, and New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Connecticut have had to approve subsidies to keep others online.

Westinghouse Electric, once a global powerhouse in designing and building reactors, went bankrupt in 2017 after an anticipated renaissance of U.S. nuclear power failed to emerge. After exiting bankruptcy and getting bought, it’s now more focused on dismantling them.

New York-based Northstar has extensive experience with demolition projects and environmental remediation, as well as smaller nuclear facilities at research sites. While Vermont Yankee is its first commercial nuclear project, State said the company is in talks for four more accelerated decommissioning contracts.