Energy & Environment

Citizens groups across New England protest nuke waste storage

vermont Yankee fuel pool

The spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant holds 2,996 spent fuel assemblies, each measuring about 7 inches by 7 inches, that are awaiting a move to dry cask storage. Photo courtesy Vermont Yankee

VERNON – United by the presence of spent nuclear fuel in their backyards, members of community advisory panels in four states – including Vermont – are demanding congressional action.

The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel is among the groups writing to federal lawmakers, urging approval of an interim, centralized storage facility so that nuclear waste won’t be stashed long-term at four shuttered plants – Vermont Yankee, Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe.

“Indefinite on-site storage of this material stranded in the communities we live and work in is unacceptable,” the letter says.

Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusettes each closed in the 1990s, and radiological decommissioning is finished at each plant. Vermont Yankee ceased power production less than a year ago and is headed into a decades-long period of dormancy called SAFSTOR. Decommissioning could take up to six decades.

But there is a common concern among all the Yankee properties: The federal government has not delivered on its promise of providing a central repository for spent nuclear fuel, meaning that radioactive material must remain in storage at the plant sites that produced it.

In Vernon, most of Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel still sits in a pool inside the reactor building. Plant owner Entergy has pledged to move fuel rods to more stable dry-cask storage by the end of 2020; by that time, 58 casks will be loaded with 3,880 spent fuel assemblies.

There is no shortage of divisive issues regarding Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning, but this isn’t one of them: Entergy administrators and their adversaries in state government can agree that removing spent fuel is a top priority.

“It’s in our business interest to get it out of there as soon as possible,” Entergy Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said.

But the actual expectations for spent-fuel storage at Vermont Yankee range from decades to “indefinitely,” depending on who is doing the estimating. Entergy’s projections show significant, annual spending on spent-fuel management through 2052, and some say even that date – which is based on current federal projections – is too optimistic.

Spent-fuel management at Vermont Yankee is projected to cost $368 million, and it is a controversial cost. While Entergy is taking out a line of credit to pay for some of that expense, and while the company has pledged to sue the federal government to recoup some of its costs, Vermont officials have challenged Entergy’s proposed use of the plant’s decommissioning trust fund for spent fuel management.

Kate O’Connor, who chairs the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, said she found common ground when attending meetings of two other citizen groups – Maine Yankee Community Advisory Panel on Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage and Removal, and Yankee Rowe Spent Fuel Storage and Removal Community Advisory Board.

“Maine was talking about (spent fuel), because they’re just as frustrated as anybody else,” O’Connor said. Hence the congressional letter, which is signed by the Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont groups as well as the Connecticut Yankee Fuel Storage Advisory Committee.

Removing spent fuel from the plant sites, the letter says, “would return these sites to productive use in the host communities” and would “make the storage and security of this material more efficient, more cost-effective and arguably more safe while ending the federal government’s increasing liability at these sites.”

The letter writers also argue that “the federal government has failed to meet its contractual and statutory obligations under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 to remove this material beginning in 1998.”

Via their contributions into decommissioning trust funds, “the ratepayers of New England have paid for the removal and disposal of the (spent fuel) and have received nothing in return,” the letter says. Panel members are “urging meaningful action in this session of Congress to overcome the national nuclear waste management policy impasse.”

Given the holiday week, the members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have not yet responded to the citizen groups’ request for action. But David Carle, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., noted that “the delegation certainly is on the record in wanting the fuel out of the spent fuel pool as soon as possible … and off the site altogether as soon as practicable.”

Though there is not yet a central repository for spent fuel, the U.S. Department of Energy has begun preliminary fuel-transportation planning and has scheduled a 2016 visit to Vermont Yankee.

The Energy Department in 2013 released federal guidance in a report, “Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste,” that calls for construction of a “pilot interim storage facility with an initial focus on accepting used nuclear fuel from shut-down reactors” by 2021.

A larger interim storage facility is expected by 2025, according to the Department of Energy, with a “geologic repository” – an underground, permanent storage facility for nuclear waste – available by 2048.

In their letter, members of the four nuclear community advisory groups ask Congress to focus on those guidelines and to support legislation directing the Department of Energy to engage with entities and communities that may be interested in hosting interim spent-fuel storage.

“Progress toward a (geologic) repository must also occur, but not at the expense of addressing the needs of our communities that could be achieved in the nearer term,” the letter says.

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Mike Faher

About Mike

Mike Faher reports on health care and Vermont Yankee for VTDigger. Faher has worked as a daily newspaper journalist for 19 years, most recently as lead reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer where he covered several towns and schools as well as the Vermont Legislature and Windham Superior Court. He previously worked for 13 years in his native Pennsylvania at The Johnstown Tribune-Democrat.

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