With change in crisis planning, era ends for Vermont Yankee area

Yankee

Vermont Yankee’s 10-mile emergency planning zone becomes a thing of the past Tuesday. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

VERNON — Tuesday morning, a big part of Vermont Yankee’s footprint is vanishing.

That’s because the closed nuclear plant’s 10-mile emergency planning zone, which touches 18 towns in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, is expiring due to a license change approved last year by federal regulators.

The zone’s demise means there will be no more sirens or tone-alert radios to warn residents in the event of an incident at the Vernon facility, where radioactive spent nuclear fuel is expected to remain until 2052.

But Entergy administrators and state officials said they are maintaining a “robust system” for emergency response and public notification.

“The bottom line is, we’re required to have an emergency plan here,” said Mike McKenney, Vermont Yankee’s emergency preparedness manager. “The goal is to protect the health and safety of the public.”

Entergy owns about 125 acres at the Vermont Yankee site. But for more than four decades, the plant’s actual presence has been much larger due to the reach of the emergency planning zone.

Anyone living within that circle is familiar with Entergy’s calendars and maps showing emergency contacts, evacuation information and instructions for ingesting potassium iodide to combat radiation exposure.

The towns and states in the zone also have received annual federally mandated financial allocations from Entergy to support emergency planning, personnel and equipment.

All of that changes this week. Entergy received permission late last year from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shrink the emergency planning zone to the plant site itself, with officials saying the risk of an accident — and any associated off-site radiation release — has decreased.

That’s in part because all fuel has been permanently removed from Vermont Yankee’s reactor. But McKenney said it’s also because the site’s spent fuel has “cooled” significantly since the plant ceased producing power in December 2014.

Though the NRC gave its approval, the emergency changes were controversial at the state level.

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The spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Photo courtesy Vermont Yankee

Entergy plans to move all of Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel into more stable dry cask storage by the end of 2020, but most of that material currently is stored in a cooling pool inside the reactor building. Vermont officials argue that, at least for the next several years, Entergy should continue to pay for an enhanced regional emergency response organization due to the risks posed by spent fuel.

“We’ve always been concerned about this issue,” state Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said. “Although the risk is substantially reduced from an operating reactor, we think that, as long as the spent fuel is in the pool, we ought to have a (regional) program in place to respond to potential emergencies.”

Though there is no longer any federal mandate to do so, Entergy has struck a deal to voluntarily provide ongoing emergency funding to New Hampshire — albeit at a greatly reduced rate. Recchia said he is engaged in similar talks, meaning it’s still possible that Vermont’s Radiological Emergency Response Program budget — currently a $1.6 million line item — won’t be zeroed out in the next fiscal year.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn confirmed that Entergy is continuing to negotiate future emergency payments with officials in both Vermont and Massachusetts. But the bottom line, he said, is that “we’re no longer going to be giving the kind of money that the states have become accustomed to.”

Nevertheless, Entergy administrators contend that the “permanently defueled” emergency plan that takes effect Tuesday is suitable for the risks that remain at Vermont Yankee. The changes include:

• Entergy is vacating its Joint Information Center and emergency operations facility on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro. “We just had the property appraisals done, and we’ll probably be moving to market those very shortly,” Cohn said.

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Mike McKenney is Vermont Yankee’s emergency preparedness manager. File photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

• As another round of layoffs looms, Vermont Yankee’s new emergency plan calls for its internal emergency response organization to shrink from about 120 staffers to just 30, McKenney said.

• The plant’s two top emergency action levels — “general emergency” and “site area emergency” — will no longer be in use. That leaves only two less-serious levels — “alert” and “unusual event.”

• Entergy will no longer distribute emergency calendars, maps and tone-alert radios. Although towns in the emergency planning zone were given the opportunity to take ownership of Entergy’s sirens, most opted out; removal of 24 of the 37 sirens will begin “very soon,” McKenney said.

• The company still will be required to notify state officials of any emergency at the plant, but the maximum time frame for doing so expands from 15 minutes to 60 minutes. “If you look at where we are, being a defueled reactor and with fuel that has cooled to a certain point, any postulated (emergency) event is so slow in developing that it helps support the justification for that time change,” McKenney said.

With the Vermont Yankee sirens and radios inactive, it will fall to the state to let residents know if something’s gone wrong at the plant. After receiving word of an emergency from Entergy, “we will make a decision about what precautionary or protective actions people need to take, if any,” said Erica Bornemann, chief of staff for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

That can happen via traditional media notifications, she said, but it would also happen quickly via the VT-Alert system. “We can call people’s phones — including cellphones — within a certain geographic area,” Bornemann said. “Not only can we call cellphones, we can text them.”

Residents can customize what type of alerts they’d like to receive on the VT-Alert website.

“I can understand that (the emergency planning changes) might cause a certain amount of consternation,” Bornemann said. “We just want to ensure folks know that they’re not left hanging, and we maintain our commitments to emergency preparedness in that region.”

Mike Faher

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  • Howard Shaffer

    Potassium Iodide pills protect only the Thyroid gland from breathing in or swallowing radioactive iodine. This iodine comes only from damaged reactor fuel. IF a person did get a large amount of radioactive iodine in them, they might get thyroid cancer. This happened to several thousand people in the Chernobyl fallout area, because their diets were low in iodine, and they did not get the pills. In this country, with good diets, the risk is lower, and the pills load the thyroid with iodine so it has no more capacity for radioactive iodine.
    What has not been well reported that of the thousand who got thyroid cancer, surgery cured all but seven or so. Thyroid removal, or partial removal. is not a big deal, and a daily pill makes up for the missing thyroid hormone. This is what I have to do, since I had half my thyroid removed, due to possible cancerous lumps. They were not.

    • Jacob Gregory

      Remember that radioiodine release is only significant for damage to an operating reactor’s fuel or that freshly removed from the core. 131I physical half-life is eight days. The fuel from VY has been decaying in the SPF for a lot longer than that. The danger of radioiodine uptake from anything at VY is virtually nil. Those potassium pills distributed for VY should probably be tossed, if anyone has them. In fact, my fear has always been that panicked people will be stuffing down KI pills by the handful if the radiophobia and FUD runs rampant in the event of any kind of seemingly harmful occurrence at VY. Allergic response to KI is rare but not zero, ranging anywhere from 0.5 to 2 out of a million exposed to it. There may be more of a risk from needlessly taking KI than there would be from any non-existent threat of radioiodine release from VY.

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