VERNON — When Jack Boyle arrived at Vermont Yankee in December 2012 to assume the post of engineering director, he believed the Vernon nuclear plant would be operating for years to come.
Just nine months later, though, Entergy announced that the facility would cease producing power at the end of 2014. And now, 17 months after shutdown, Boyle has become Vermont Yankee’s top administrator — the man in charge of the site’s challenging decommissioning process.
The 40-year industry veteran acknowledges that post-shutdown operations have been “a real learning experience.” But in an interview with VTDigger, Boyle also said Vermont Yankee is well-positioned for the long road ahead, both in terms of the plant’s remaining workforce and its finances.
“We finished last year about $15 million under budget, and year to date this year we’re a couple of million under budget,” Boyle said. “So that’s still going well for us.”
He added that one of the higher-profile issues affecting Yankee this year — extensive groundwater intrusion in the plant’s turbine building — “has not been a setback” in spite of requiring extra work and money.
“I think the volume of water was unanticipated by us,” Boyle said. “But it hasn’t affected us in any way from a schedule standpoint, nor from meeting our budget.”
Boyle earned his degree in nuclear engineering in 1976, four years after Vermont Yankee began operations in Vernon. The Massachusetts native spent most of his career with Duke Power, now known as Duke Energy, and retired from that company in 2012; soon after, he began work at Vermont Yankee.
By his own estimation, Boyle has “done a lot of things” in the nuclear business. But he says the job title he assumed last month — Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning director — brings many new challenges.
“Most people in the nuclear industry are in jobs to operate nuclear power plants,” Boyle said. “There’s a small fraction that are in decommissioning activities. It’s been a real learning experience.”
Boyle takes over for Paul Paradis, who now will oversee regional decommissioning activities at Vermont Yankee as well as at Entergy’s FitzPatrick plant in New York and its Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts. Those latter two facilities are scheduled to shut down in the next few years.
Also, longtime Vermont Yankee Site Vice President Chris Wamser has retired, and that position was not filled. So that leaves Boyle to supervise the plant.
“(Wamser) has left us in very good shape and in very good stead,” Boyle said. “Our mantra for our final cycle of operation was to finish strong, and we certainly did.”
The focus now is on site cleanup and long-term storage of the plant’s radioactive spent fuel. Vermont Yankee is heading into SAFSTOR, a federally approved program under which decommissioning can take up to 60 years.
Cleanup could happen sooner than that, as Entergy has pledged to start decommissioning when there is enough cash in the plant’s trust fund. But the finish line is still a long way off: Decommissioning’s total price tag is estimated at $1.24 billion, and the trust fund — from which Entergy has been withdrawing money since shutdown — contained $594.1 million at the end of April.
Vermont officials are no fans of SAFSTOR, and the state is lobbying for federal changes that would require nuclear plants to decommission within a decade of shutdown. Boyle said that’s not realistic, arguing that trust funds and federal regulations were not set up for such a schedule.
“I think the public perceives that there’s money (in the trust fund) so that we can take this plant back to a green field within 10 years,” he said. “The fund cannot support that.”
So for now, Vermont Yankee administrators are moving ahead as planned, and that includes draining and “laying up” systems no longer needed. Boyle said that work, to the extent that it can be done at this point, is nearly complete.
Plant personnel have had to deviate from planned decommissioning work to deal with higher-than-expected amounts of groundwater seeping into the basement of the turbine building. For a time, there was so much water that the contaminated liquid was being stored in open swimming pools.
Those pools are gone, and Entergy has been trucking water off site at a still-undisclosed cost. As of late last month, the company said 115,000 gallons of intrusion water had left Yankee.
Boyle said Entergy also has made progress in stemming the flow: At one point, 2,500 to 3,000 gallons were entering the turbine building monthly, but “right now, we’ve got it consistently below 1,000 gallons a month,” he said.
The problem, however, isn’t going away. “We’re not hopeful that we’re going to get it much below that,” Boyle said. “We’re continuing to look at a couple of areas to get it lower. But we’re also planning to deal with it at the rate that it’s coming in now.”
Water issues aside, the next major project for Vermont Yankee officials is the construction of a second concrete pad that will hold additional spent fuel casks. Entergy has said all of the plant’s spent fuel will be stored in casks by the end of 2020, and the fuel move is expected to start next year.
That work is dependent on the state Public Service Board issuing a certificate of public good for the fuel pad. Entergy had asked for that permit to be issued early last month, but that has not happened.
“If we go beyond next week (without a permit), then it will start affecting our schedule,” Boyle said.
When the fuel storage project goes forward, Boyle said, he’s happy that Holtec International — the cask manufacturer — also will be handling much of the preparatory work including pad construction. All of that work, he added, will be overseen by Vermont Yankee staff with experience in moving spent nuclear fuel.
There has been debate over the safety of moving that material, especially with Vernon Elementary School across the road from Vermont Yankee. But Boyle dismisses such concerns, listing them among common misperceptions about the plant.
“They just really don’t understand the robustness of the equipment, the casks, the capability of the people who are doing the task, to be able to do this job safely,” he said. “There’s no question in our minds that we’re set up to do it 100 percent safely.”
Once all of Vermont Yankee’s fuel is situated in casks, that will set into motion another round of changes for the plant site and for staff.
In terms of the plant’s physical size, having all spent fuel stored on two adjacent pads will allow administrators to “implement design changes that take the footprint of the site and close it in significantly around the fuel and around a new emergency diesel generator,” Boyle said.
Left outside the smaller inner security fence will be the reactor and turbine buildings, which by then will be “cold and dark,” Boyle said.
Plant spokesman Marty Cohn emphasized, however, that the public still will not be allowed near those structures. “There will still be robust security in place,” Cohn said. “When we shrink the footprint, that does not mean that the no-trespassing signs come down.”
It does mean, however, that there will be fewer workers needed at the plant, where about 136 staffers remain after furloughs last month. When all spent fuel is sealed in casks, another workforce reduction “will shortly follow,” Boyle said.
But for the time being, Boyle said, he will be leaning heavily on the expertise and experience of Vermont Yankee’s current staff.
“We are very fortunate to have incredible experience with the work staff that we have — on average, much more so than most of the other nuclear plants in the industry,” he said.