Vermont Yankee decommissioning on track, says new director

Jack Boyle
Jack Boyle, Vermont Yankee’s new decommissioning director, stands with the Vernon plant’s shut-down reactor building in the background. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

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.

Jack Boyle Marty Cohn
Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Director Jack Boyle, left, looks at decommissioning plans with plant spokesman Marty Cohn. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger

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.

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  • Leonard Suschena

    Odd how when VY says they are under budget, there is not a single comment.
    Why is that?

  • Moshe Braner

    “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.” But it’s “on track” and “going well”. Yeah right. The days when money made money just sitting there are long gone. Inflation (of relevant costs) will grow faster than the money in the fund. The time to set aside enough money was years before the plant was shut down.

    • Jacob Gregory

      The estimated final cost of decommissioning must include a reasonable escalator for inflation, which the NRC has to approve when reviewing the overall decommissioning plan. So, in round numbers, lets assume there is $600 million in there now, and the goal is $1.2 billion after 60 years of SAFSTOR. This assumes that the state of Vermont ceases the frivolous lawsuits whose cost comes out of the decommissioning fund. (IOW, leave them the hell alone!) My interest rate calculator says that at an APY of 1.17%, compounded annually, you get a little over $1.2 billion after 60 years. Cripes, any decent money manager could get that. Heck, I could do it myself just buying CDs at the local bank. The last time I checked they were offering 12 month CDs at 1.22%. At 1.22% compounded annually you get to $1.24 billion on the nose, no muss, no fuss, just buy CDs.

      • John Greenberg

        Jacob Gregory:

        The $1.2 billion figure, unless I’m very mistaken, comes from the testimony of William Cloutier for Entergy at the Public Service Board. It is expressed in nominal dollars. Cloutier is the Manager of Decommissioning Services at TLG Services, Inc. (“TLG”), an engineering and field-services company.

        Here’s the way Mr. Cloutier puts it in pre-filed rebuttal testimony in Docket 7862, dated March 15, 2013: “Estimates of decommissioning costs are typically reported in nominal dollars; therefore, it is the escalation of those dollars into the year of expenditure (and subsequent discounting) that provides the basis for financial planning and asset management.” (Answer 19 on page 9)

        Each nomimal overall estimate then is broken down into categories, each of which is escalated into the dollars needed at a given date. Cloutier’s estimates were based on rates of return for the Decommissioning Fund in the 4-5% range.

        The main point Moshe Braner is raising is that the cost of decommissioning could easily rise faster than the rate of return on the capital in the decommissioning fund (or less conservatively put, it is LIKELY to rise faster).

        Specifically, if the Fund has enough money currently to do roughly half the work needed, there is every reason to believe that a similar ratio will pertain 60 years from now. The Fund, as you suggest, can certainly be expected to grow during the interim, but so will decommissioning costs. Unless the Fund grows twice as fast as the costs during those decades, it will be inadequate to complete the work.

        • Jacob Gregory

          OK, its no big deal for me to run the interest rate calculator again. This time, we will assume a 3% inflation rate of the 60-year period, compounding interest annually, no monthly or yearly contributions to the starting principle of $600 million. With a growth rate of 2.35% APY, you get to a little over $2.4 billion after 60 years. Now that’s a little higher than buying CDs, but surely a halfway competent money manager can find some conservative investment funds to net 2.4% annual growth. Heck, I saved in a 403b annuity for over 30 years and my financial advisor was able to do a little over 7% averaged over that time.

          • John Greenberg

            Jacob Gregory:

            1) You missed the point entirely. Run your calculator at any rate you wish, but the Fund has to increase at twice the rate that the work will cost, or the shortfall can’t be made up.

            2) You might want to read Mr. Cloutier’s testimony at the Board in Dockets 7440 and 7862. And while you’re at it, you could read that of his critics from the State in the latter docket.

          • Jacob Gregory

            I see the problem now. You’re applying a linear function to a non-linear system. Time for some remedial function analysis.

          • John Greenberg

            Jacob Gregory:

            If your comment is directed towards me, I have no idea what you’re talking about.

          • Jacob Gregory

            OK, forget it. You’re just pushing FUD anyway, making it seem like such a daunting task to grow a fund with a starting principle to something over twice the initial amount. Even allowing for inflation, its not, because of the long period allowed for growth.

          • John Greenberg

            Jacob Gregory:

            Thanks for the gratuitous ad hominem attack. They’re always appreciated.

            Mr. Cloutier is Entergy’s witness and he too disagrees with you. Is he “pushing FUD” too?

            I won’t characterize what you’re “pushing.”

            It is not unreasonable to suggest — as Mr. Cloutier does — that the Fund can outgrow the costs. No one has a crystal ball. But it IS unreasonable to suggest, as you continue to do, that the Fund will grow while costs won’t, or that a 1-3% rate of return will be adequate.

            Your figures are clearly wrong, and you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. Once again, I would recommend that you read the testimony presented to the Public Service Board in Dockets 7440 and 7862 and inform yourself, before attacking those with whom you disagree. I’ve done precisely that, which is why I feel comfortable writing here.

            It’s also perfectly reasonable to question Mr. Cloutier’s figures; there are MANY variables at play here. Several of the witnesses DPS put on in Docket 7862 did just that.

            My guess – based on both the testimony and decades of following financial markets – is that the Fund will NOT outgrow costs, unless there’s a major and unforeseen technological breakthrough of some kind or unless future investment returns are substantially greater than they were in the past, which few, if any, observers predict.

            In short, I agree with Moshe Braner’s initial comment.