Activists urge underground storage for Vermont Yankee fuel

Vermont Yankee
Vermont Yankee stores spent fuel in dry casks on a concrete pad. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO – Should Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel be stashed underground?

The New England Coalition is asking state regulators to weigh that question, arguing that the radioactive material might be more safely and cheaply stored in special casks that could be buried at the shut-down Vernon plant.

Owner Entergy is seeking state approval for an aboveground storage facility. While a Vermont Yankee spokesman declined to respond to the coalition’s request, Entergy administrators already have said they considered — and ruled out — keeping spent fuel underground.

A subterranean storage facility “not only would be significantly more difficult and substantially more expensive to install than the aboveground … system, but also carries significant schedule and cost risks associated with an unproven system,” George Thomas, a Vermont Yankee senior project manager, told the state Public Service Board last year.

The board is weighing Entergy’s plan for a 93-by-76-foot concrete pad at Vermont Yankee. That pad would host spent nuclear fuel sealed in casks manufactured by Florida-based Holtec International.

Thirteen Holtec casks already are on a spent fuel pad at Yankee. But a majority of the plant’s spent fuel remains in a cooling pool inside the reactor building, and Entergy needs a second pad — to be constructed next to the first pad — for additional casks.

There is general consensus that the radioactive fuel is safer in dry casks than in the cooling pool. But Entergy’s storage plans have drawn some criticism, particularly among those who believe the proximity of stored spent fuel to the plant’s reactor building could impede decommissioning.

The New England Coalition’s underground storage proposal is a new twist on that theme. The Brattleboro-based activist group wants the Public Service Board to demand “a serious and open consideration of alternatives including state-of-the-art subsurface storage.”

Specifically, the coalition cites Holtec’s HI-STORM 100U model, touted as the “underground counterpart” of Entergy’s preferred casks. The coalition argues that the underground casks would be less visible as well as “waterproof; protected by the earth; designed for quicker and cheaper emplacement and removal of fuel; cheaper to decommission; and reducing emanated radiation.”

All of which is important, some say, because it’s not clear how long spent fuel will remain at Vermont Yankee. The federal government has not made good on its promise to develop a national repository for nuclear waste, leading to legal, financial and environmental issues at nuclear plants around the country.

Clay Turnbull
Clay Turnbull is a New England Coalition trustee and staffer. Photo by Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Entergy’s current plan, based on federal guidance, is that the U.S. Department of Energy will begin removing spent fuel from Vermont Yankee in 2026 and finish in 2052. But some are skeptical, and the New England Coalition cited recent statements by Entergy executives that seem to echo that uncertainty.

“Given the serious nature of the proposed (spent fuel) project, Entergy should be required to examine all realistic alternatives in a professionally credible manner, and they should be required to produce a reviewable analysis in concert with a fully informed public,” said Clay Turnbull, a coalition trustee and staffer, in a written statement accompanying the group’s underground storage pitch.

The coalition’s request comes relatively late in the game. Entergy is expecting the Public Service Board to rule on its fuel pad request by May. The board held technical hearings last month in Montpelier.

Asked about the New England Coalition’s proposal, Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said it would be inappropriate to comment “because it’s a legal proceeding before the Public Service Board.”

However, large portions of prefiled testimony from Thomas, the project manager, have been devoted to Entergy administrators’ rationale for the location of the spent fuel storage. In addition to detailing why the company ruled out alternate sites, Thomas has spoken directly about underground storage.

Entergy’s review of the HI-STORM 100U system found both financial and logistical difficulties. “Given the space constraints of (Vermont Yankee’s) protected area, it would be extremely difficult and expensive to excavate to the depths required to build the underground facility,” Thomas said in 2014 state testimony.

At that time, Thomas cited additional uncertainties because the underground storage system had not been used at other plants. In updated testimony filed last year, Thomas noted that two nuclear facilities had begun planning for or installing underground systems, but that did not change his opinion.

“The experience of other facilities substantiates the conclusion that the cost to install an underground dry cask storage system at Vermont Yankee would be considerably more expensive than the aboveground … system,” Thomas said.

Money is an issue not just for Entergy’s bottom line but also for Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund, which will help determine how soon decommissioning work begins. Thomas has said any delay in building the second storage pad would delay the transfer of spent fuel into dry casks, resulting in additional costs estimated at $1.7 million per month.

“These costs include site security; maintenance and support staff; insurance; electricity; fuel oil; NRC fees; taxes; and other costs that will be decreased or eliminated once fuel has been removed from the spent fuel pool and the site protected area reduced,” Thomas testified. “Entergy expects that these costs would be paid out of the plant’s nuclear decommissioning trust fund, delaying the time when major decommissioning activities could begin.”

Turnbull, though, argues that it’s more important to get fuel storage right than to get it done quickly. “The fastest way to satisfactory completion of any construction project,” he said, “is to measure twice and cut once.”

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  • Howard Shaffer

    How silly can this circus get? Underground storage?! Why should the Dry Casks be out of site? Aren’t they easier to maintain and check when above ground? This looks to me like another anti-nuke plan to bleed the industry financially.

    • Raymond Shadis

      Not silly at all. Check out the Holtec 100U on the Holtec International website. Holtec “U” casks systems have been put in place at Humbolt Bay and are going in place at San Onofre and Calloway NPPs. Large scale Holtec U sites are being loaded in Ukraine. Because of speedy fuel loading schedules, lessened seismic requirements, and cheaper decommissioning, the Holtec 100U is competitive with, if not cheaper than, the Hi-Storm 100 currently deployed at VY.
      Let’s get technical for a second. Check what? What are maintenance procedures for a dry canister and cask system. As to monitoring casks, Thermal readouts tell all. Same, same above ground or below.
      New England Coalition is supporting an advance in nuclear fuel storage technology..

      • Tom Clegg

        Ray you should check out your fellow anti-nuke web site at San Onofrre. They have a totally different take on the Holtec 100U. They think it’s dangerous. But I guess they are just like you. Not experts in nuclear power.

        • Raymond Shadis

          Sad, isn’t? I’ve only undertaken serious study of nuclear issues since 1979. I’ve always hung around with and worked with nuclear engineers. Yud a thunk I mighta learnt somethin. Oh well, Off to the Trump Rally if we’re gonna make nuclear great again.

          • Tom Clegg

            Ray to start off with Trump is in favor of natural gas. He says we are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. As for your background it is the same as any anti-nukes background I read somewhere or heard somewhere so it must be right. So you know and speak to nuclear engineers. So by what you are saying if I hung around and talked with doctors. When someone went in for surgery I could tell them where and how deep the surgeon should cut.

          • Raymond Shadis

            Of my background you no nothing. FYI. In 2000 I was asked by NRC to join a Federal Advisory Committees Act panel to evaluate roll-out of the then new Reactor Oversight Process, the panel chair then named me to report my observations to the full Commission. A few weeks later, I was recalled to NRC HQ to round out a working group struggling with Risk Significance Determination. In that same timeframe, first Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company and then NRC sponsored my participation in developing the NRC Staff Report: NUREG 1738 ” Accident Risk at Decommissioning Nuclear Power Stations.” I was invited to present to the full Commission with my perspectives on the Staff Report. Also NRC invited me to present at breakout sessions in two annual NRC regulatory conferences. Among the topics: Over-reliance on Corrective Action Programs, Industry Voluntary Initiatives, and Public Participation in Decommissioning. Also the Keystone Foundation sponsored my participation in a National Dialogue on Decommissioning with nuclear industry reps and regulators. The burning question was, who pays when decom funds fall short? Of course it now proves to have been a waste of time…when Entergy had the answer all along.

          • Tom Clegg

            So Ray what you are telling me is with no formal nuclear education,never been in the nuclear navy, never worked in a nuclear power plant. The NRC came running to you to put on committees. Sounds to me like a political appointment. Was it Bernie Sanders or maybe Ed Markey (both big anti-nukes). So what did you do help them on their campaigns. So they owed you one and forced the NRC to deal with you?

          • Raymond Shadis

            Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company sponsored my participation in the formation of NUREG-1738; Nuclear Engineer (and one time NRC reactor instructor) Dave Lochbaum of UCS nominated me for the ROP roll-out panel. The NRC RSD people called me back on their own. NRC staff asked me present at two annual regulatory conferences on Corrective Action Programs, Industry Voluntary Initiatives, Public Involvement in Decommissioning, and I forget what else. Yes, I am self-taught, but I am a pretty good teacher(in the day, 99%tile in the National Teacher’s Examinations). What I say is not gospel, but it is informed opinion. With that I am done responding to this increasingly childish thread.

  • I am no fan of Vermont Yankee having worked over the years to shut it down, as with all nukes. The risks are too costly with catastrophic dangers persisting forever. We need not look any further than Fukushima to galvanize unified will to shut them all down. Failed storage, too, minus any major nuclear incident could also have catastrophic consequences. However, I question the wisdom of my antinuke brethren to store long term nuclear waste underground, out of sight, out of mind. How long are these drums predicted to be viable? In the blink of an eye of nuclear half life, any drums will likely deteriorate, so I am told. It’s by no stretch of the imagination to consider that an underground breach will be addressed less aggressively than one above ground. Why not let them sit on the pad for eternity, further away from water tables, and deal with the eventual deterioration of the containers not if, but when it happens, that is, in the unlikely event we are still a semi–functioning society on this planet able to address such calamities?

    • Raymond Shadis

      In both the above-ground system and the 100U bellow-ground system, the fuel is weld sealed into a stainless steel canister that can only be properly examined or tinkered with by sliding it up out of its over-pack, the steel and concrete cask in “cask” storage and into a heavily shielded transfer device. In above ground storage the shield must first be lifted twenty feet to the top of the cask and then positioned on top of the cask. In the below ground the top of the cask is at about 27 inches, so that would be the height of the shield lift. The length of the canister must be considered/added in both cases. Given all that, I think examination and maintenance or repair of the canister would be easier, less risky, and present lower radiation doses than the above ground option.
      Holtec supports your concern about secure storage for great ages of time; their calculation is that the stainless steel material of the canister with not fail for 300 years, above or below ground. They claim no ground water will penetrate the cask . Since water has a heat transfer coefficient a few orders of magnitude greater than water, if the casks are flooded/drowned in water cooling efficiency will increase accordingly.
      We are dealt a bad hand of cards with waste that has no where to go so in our view the question is how to make the best of it. We would appreciate your continued critique, comments, and support.

      • Raymond Shadis

        CORRECTION: I intended to write “Since water has a heat transfer coefficient …greater than AIR.”