Vermont, New York regulators urge review of spent nuclear fuel storage

The dry cask storage units outside of the Vermont Yankee plant. Photo by Laura Frohn,

The dry cask storage units outside of the Vermont Yankee plant. Photo by Laura Frohn,

Leading Vermont and New York regulators on Tuesday called on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to conduct a comprehensive environmental review of spent nuclear fuel storage.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, the Vermont Department of Public Service and the New York Attorney General’s Office issued a formal letter to the federal commission on Tuesday regarding the “scope of consideration of environmental impacts of temporary spent fuel after cessation of reactor operation.”

The states’ plea comes roughly eight months after the U.S. Appellate Court struck down the commission’s so-called “waste confidence rule,” which authorized the storage of spent fuel at a reactor. The court called for more extensive environmental assessments of this practice, and in August 2012, the NRC suspended all licensing decisions for nuclear power plants until it can address concerns regarding long-term storage of nuclear waste.

“The NRC owes a legal obligation to the public to engage in a full and thorough review of the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactors that were never designed to be long-term storage facilities,” Sorrell said in a public statement.

The letter from Vermont and New York officials says it is time to begin exploring new ways to store high-level nuclear waste other than spent fuel pools at reactor sites across the country.

“After more than three decades of failing to address the very real and widespread concern with the continued production of nuclear wastes without a permanent, safe, and secure nuclear waste repository NRC now has the opportunity, albeit mandated by a Federal Court, to apply its considerable expertise to address these concerns,” the letter says.

Vermont Yankee has 1,507 fuel rod assemblies submerged in a spent fuel pool, which was originally designed to hold about 350. Spent fuel rods must be kept under water in order to prevent the zirconium cladding (the metal tubes that contain the fuel pellets) from igniting. The rods can remain hot for several years.

Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel pool, located in a metal warehouse structure, has more than five full reactor cores’ worth of radioactive material. In the event of an accident, the impact would be five times greater than a single reactor meltdown.

The dry cask storage containers on the site are hundreds of times safer than the spent fuel pool, said Ray Shadis, a technical consultant to the anti-nuclear New England Coalition.

At this point, the site has 13 loaded casks, four of which were filled last year, according to Neil Sheehan, NRC public affairs officer for Region 1.

Each cask, which can hold 72 assemblies, costs $1 million. It would cost roughly $11 million to move all of the assemblies into dry cask storage.

The Swiss financial services company UBS issued a report this week that forecasts a grim cash flow outlook for Entergy Corp.’s nuclear power plants, and recommended that Entergy sell Vermont Yankee to shore up its finances.

The U.S. Appellate Court ruling put a halt to license renewal applications for nine plants, including Indian Point in New York and Seabrook in New Hampshire.

Under the order, the commission, for the first time, will require environmental assessments of nuclear waste now held at the nation’s 104 reactor sites amid growing public pressure to evaluate the potential hazards of spent fuel pools and dry cask storage at nuclear reactor sites in the United States after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. There are 104 nuclear reactors at 64 operating plants in the United States, according to a report from CNN. Half are more than 30 years old.

The commission gave Vermont Yankee, which was built in 1972, a 20-year license extension in 2011.

Andrew Stein

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  • Cheryl Twarog

    “Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel pool, located in a metal warehouse structure…”. Whoa, hold on a minute. That was a gross misrepresentation of the building where the spent fuel is stored. It is located in a building made with reinforced concrete which is 1 to 3 feet thick. Inaccurate information serves no one, regardless of which side of the argument you’re on.

  • Gary Sachs

    Dear Ms Twarog,
    While I agree with you that the truth is best when transparent, the roof of the spent fuel pool maintains a (negative) pressure such that a pound and a half of pressure per square inch and the spent fuel pool roof goes bye bye… unless… I, a non-engineer observer am incorrect.

    The pool is concrete and steel lined as you say.

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