VERNON – Federal officials issued formal notification on Thursday that Vermont Yankee emergency operations can be drastically scaled back due to a “significantly lower” risk of radiological accidents at the shutdown Vernon plant.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of plant owner Entergy’s requested regulatory exemptions – previously signaled in a filing obtained by VTDigger – means that the plant’s 10-mile emergency planning zone will disappear next year, as will millions in state and municipal funding that goes with it.
Additionally, the NRC exemptions and an accompanying license amendment pave the way for the next big round of staff reductions at Vermont Yankee, where about 300 people are still employed.
The changes will take effect in April 2016.
“While the emergency plan will be updated to better reflect the plant’s permanent shutdown, we remain committed to protect the health and safety of the public and our employees,” Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said Thursday.
State officials had opposed the changes. “We’re obviously disappointed, and we’re evaluating our options,” Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said. “We’ll evaluate them in the context of what’s best for Vermont in this situation.”
Entergy ceased producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 after 42 years of operation. The following month, the company certified that all fuel had been removed from the plant’s reactor vessels. That was the basis for Entergy’s proposed emergency-planning changes, with administrators saying their request was “commensurate with the reduction in hazards associated with the permanently defueled condition.”
Internally, the company will cut the emergency operations facility and joint information center. Externally, the Vermont Yankee emergency planning zone (EPZ) – which currently touches all or part of 18 towns in three states – will shrink to the plant boundary itself. That means no more alert sirens, for instance, and it means the end of millions of dollars in Entergy funding for that zone when the current fiscal year is up.
Vermont officials objected to Entergy’s plans and had urged a “step-down” reduction of the EPZ, mostly because a majority of the plant’s spent nuclear fuel remains in a pool in the reactor building. Entergy will not have all of that fuel moved to more-stable dry cask storage until the end of 2020.
The NRC on Thursday issued a statement saying the emergency changes “are warranted because, when compared to an operating power reactor, the risk of an offsite radiological release is significantly lower and the types of possible accidents significantly fewer at a nuclear power reactor that has permanently ceased operations and removed fuel from the reactor vessel.”
There is one caveat in the NRC’s approval: Entergy must continue to abide by an existing license condition establishing strategies for dealing with a loss of cooling water in the spent fuel pool, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.
Entergy’s analysis shows that, if that pool lost water, at least 10 hours would pass until fuel reached 900 degrees Celsius – “the temperature where there could be a zirconium fire involving the fuel,” Sheehan said.
“There would be ample time for mitigating actions to be taken during that window of time, specifically the pumping of additional water into the pool,” Sheehan said.
He added that the company “will be required to maintain an on-shift staff and spent fuel mitigation strategies that can be implemented within approximately a two-hour timeframe.”