BRATTLEBORO — Fear of the unknown topped the minds of residents gathered in Brattleboro on Thursday night for a hearing on the decommissioning of the idle Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, a billion-plus dollar process that may take decades to complete while spent nuclear fuel sits in dry cask storage on the west shore of the Connecticut River.
“We do have reason to have concern here,” Betsy Williams, 58, of Westminster West, told a panel of officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “When you tell me the casks will be adequate, that does not give me great assurance. I’m looking for a hell of a lot more than adequate.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is taking comments on a proposed decommissioning plan by Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, a subsidiary of the Louisiana-based Entergy Corp. Many residents in the tri-state region surrounding the plant were highly critical of the company’s commitment to tear down the site, and the federal regulator’s role to oversee the process.
Residents and state officials are worried that federal regulations are inadequate to hold the plant owner accountable if there is insufficient money to decommission the facility. The company is using a special decommissioning trust fund — currently totaling $650 million — to pay for a process that is estimated to cost $1.2 billion.
Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia told federal regulators that they are “stewards” of the fund. Vermont Yankee is the second merchant plant in the nation to decommission; all others were owned by utilities and backed by ratepayer funds. Vermont Yankee was owned by a regulated utility prior to Entergy’s purchase the plant in 2002.
“I do think you need to pay better attention to the fact that we have switched environments here from a regulated utility structure to one where we have merchant facilities that need attention,” Recchia told the NRC.
It’s possible that the cost to decommission the plant could rise further, state officials say. Entergy’s decommissioning plan, known as the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, or PSDAR, does not include sufficient details on the radiological contamination at the site, which could create unanticipated expenses, officials say.
“Experience at other nuclear power plants indicates that when you start to take the buildings apart, when you start to unearth the tunnels and the piping, you find things,” said Bill Irwin, chief of Vermont’s radiological health program. “Whenever things are unexpected, they usually involve unexpected costs. Were not sure those costs are accounted for in the cost estimates.”
Many residents living near the Vernon plant called on Entergy to decommission it as soon as possible. Doing so could even save the company money, according to Arnie Gundersen, a Burlington-based nuclear engineer.
Gundersen said models used by the NRC to calculate necessary decommissioning funds are “simplistic and not based in science.”
Gundersen and his team at the nuclear safety think tank Fairewinds Associates have spent the past year developing a spreadsheet that compares the growth of the fund and planned expenses.
He said decommissioning could begin as soon as 2026 and the plant could be torn down by 2032 if the company does not use money from the decommissioning trust fund to pay for spent fuel management or other expenses.
The company estimates decommissioning will begin by 2052 or sooner. The company plans to use $225 million from the decommission trust fund to pay for part of the cost of spent fuel management, as well as a $143 million load to transfer the fuel from a cooling pool to dry casks. Withdrawals from the fund for this purpose require federal permission.
Gundersen said the company should begin decommissioning parts of the plant as soon as possible to avoid greater costs. The state measured safe levels of the radioactive contaminant strontium-90 at a monitoring well near the plant, which Gundersen said should be cleaned up as soon as possible to avoid escalating costs.
“We can remove the AOG building now and save money in the decommissioning fund,” he said. “Most of the horses are still under the AOG building. … We have a chance to nip it in the bud.”
Gundersen and other want the fund to be used for safety measures, such keeping in place its current emergency planning zone and transferring spent fuel from the cooling pool into casks only when school is not in session.
“The movement of that fuel is a very big deal. There are two elementary schools basically a stone’s throw from the reactor. This is a site specific issue,” said Deb Katz, the executive director of the Citizens Awareness Network, a group involved in the closing of other nuclear power plants in the region.
Tensions ran high during the nearly five-hour meeting Thursday night. Many of the residents jeered at those that commended Entergy’s operation of the plant, while several others interrupted responses by NRC officials. One resident even personally insulted an NRC official for not remembering they already signed into the hearing despite having a conversation.
Much of the angst grew from distrust that the company would fulfill its obligation to decommission the plant or just “walk away” from the plant. Some residents questions whether there are rules in place to ensure such a situation cannot happen.
“We’re not going to just let them walk away. Even if it involved working with the Department of Justice to go after the parent company,” said NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan. “Even if the company dissolves, they still have assets. Entergy owns a transmission company … and they own other nuclear power plants other than this.”
NRC officials are considering new rules for how to deal with decommission merchant power plant, but did not detail what changes can be expected.
“That is a development that when the nuclear industry took off in this country, was not something that was really considered. So that is something that we are going to look at,” Sheehan said.
What happens after the plant is decommissioned is yet to be determined. Entergy has said it is committed to restoring the site to “unrestricted use” as defined by federal regulations. The state, however, is asking the company to remove radiological contamination more than three feet below grade.
Negotiations about the conditions of the site post-decommissioning are underway, officials say.
“The best way to get what we believe is appropriate is to work with Entergy to come up with agreements that give us what we’re looking for,” Irwin said.