Energy & Environment

Nuke plant owners defend fuel storage plans

[B]RATTLEBORO – Entergy administrators are staunchly defending their plan for storing Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel, saying relocating the storage facility would take years and could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Detractors worry that the location of Entergy’s dry cask storage facilities will hinder decommissioning and might dramatically raise the cost of cleanup at the Vernon plant.

More than an hour of debate Thursday night in Brattleboro further exposed the deep divide between those factions, as the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel was unable to come to consensus and take an official position on the fuel storage issue.

Panel members will try again next month, with some saying it’s a critical debate given the fact that spent fuel will be staying in Vernon for several decades – and maybe much longer.

“We do not want to burden future generations with a decision made now,” said Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director.

Entergy stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 and defueled the reactor vessel in January, but the majority of the plant’s spent nuclear fuel remains in a pool inside the reactor building.

The company has pledged to have all of that fuel moved to more stable dry cask storage by the end of 2020. After that, the material is not going anywhere for a while, as the federal government has not delivered on its promise to create a central repository for the nation’s radioactive waste.

There is general agreement that it’s preferable to move Yankee’s spent fuel into sealed, dry casks as soon as possible. But there is disagreement about where those casks should be located on the plant site. Entergy already has a concrete pad holding 13 dry casks and has asked for state Public Service Board permission to construct a second pad adjacent to the first.

Vermont Yankee spent fuel pad

Dry casks hold spent nuclear fuel at shutdown Vermont Yankee in Vernon. Photo courtesy Vermont Yankee

Opponents of that plan crafted an opinion for the advisory panel to consider Thursday night, arguing that “the presence of spent nuclear fuel in close proximity to the facilities to be dismantled would present significant obstacles, both physical and financial” to decommissioning Vermont Yankee.

To support their position, they cited past statements made by Entergy administrators. Campany noted Entergy’s expectation that the federal government will remove all spent fuel from the site by 2052, and he pointed to a statements including one in the company’s October 2014 site assessment report.

If the Department of Energy’s fuel removal is delayed, that report says, “the presence of the fuel may inhibit demolition or restrict the methodologies available for demolishing the reactor building and/or structures adjacent to the stored spent fuel.”

The proposed position statement, backed by Campany and authored by advisory panel Jim Matteau, urges Public Service Board consideration of the “likely and perhaps predictable” need for a larger spent fuel pad further removed from the reactor building.

In response, Entergy – which also has representatives on the advisory panel – drafted its own opinion supporting state approval of the company’s current plans. Administrators wrote that they had considered other spots for the second spent fuel pad, and “each of the other potential locations that were evaluated has distinct disadvantages” including aesthetic impacts and “increased radiation dose to members of the public.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Paul Paradis, Vermont Yankee decommissioning director, said Entergy’s estimates show that the spent fuel pads would not significantly affect plant decommissioning activities or their costs. When it comes time to raze the plant’s reactor building, he suggested that a contractor simply would use “some alternate methodology” when working on the side of the building closest to spent fuel.

Entergy also is warning that developing an alternate storage site somewhere else on the property would delay the transfer of Vermont Yankee’s fuel into dry casks. In a recent filing with the state, an Entergy executive projected that the engineering, permitting and construction process for a separate pad “would take at least approximately four years.”

There’s also the additional expense, which Entergy says would come from the plant’s decommissioning trust fund.

“It would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars to do this work,” Paradis said.

Those time and cost concerns led Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia to uncharacteristically side with Entergy during Thursday’s debate, at least initially.

“My larger concern with this is holding up the process for decontamination and dismantlement, and taking any (additional) funds from the decommissioning trust fund,” Recchia said.

“The department can’t support construction of a (fuel storage) site elsewhere at this point,” he added.

But skepticism remained, with some saying they didn’t believe Entergy’s assurances that a third spent-fuel pad wouldn’t eventually be required. “I’ve heard ‘never happen’ a lot about this nuclear plant, and somehow, various things do seem to happen,” said state Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat and Connecticut River Watershed Council river steward who sits on the advisory panel as a citizen appointee.

Paradis responded by saying he didn’t use the word “never.” He also declined requests for Entergy to “guarantee” that spent fuel storage won’t significantly impact Yankee decommissioning. “I said we were confident based on the engineering studies that were done and the fuel that we have,” Paradis said.

At the end of the debate, there was no general agreement and no vote. Recchia even changed his position, saying he no longer could support either of the two written opinions on spent fuel storage.

Panel members agreed to form a working group that will come up with a compromise by the end of January, noting that the Public Service Board is not scheduled to decide on Entergy’s fuel storage application until spring. VNDCAP Chairwoman Kate O’Connor said she wasn’t discouraged by the delay or by the lack of consensus Thursday night.

“I think that we did come to a consensus,” O’Connor said. “We were able to listen to each other and decide that we can work things out and be unified.”

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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.

Email: [email protected]

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