Illinois plant may be model for Vermont Yankee cleanup

Contractor ZionSolutions says it is on budget and ahead of schedule in the decommissioning of the Zion nuclear plant in Illinois — a potential model for Vermont Yankee’s accelerated decommissioning. Photo courtesy of ZionSolutions
VERNON — In some respects, Entergy is breaking new ground in its proposal to sell Vermont Yankee to a company that will fast-track decommissioning.

But officials also are looking 780 miles west to Zion, Illinois, for clues as to how things might go in Vernon.

On the shore of Lake Michigan, a contractor has been working for six years to clean up the former Zion nuclear plant. There are key differences between what’s happening at Zion and what’s been proposed at Vermont Yankee, but the basic concept — outsourcing decommissioning to get a quicker result — is the same.

While things have not always gone smoothly at Zion, cleanup contractor EnergySolutions says the project is on budget and ahead of schedule. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently expects to terminate the plant’s license — signaling the end of decommissioning — by 2020, though there are indications that could happen sooner.

“This six-year overall performance reflects our workers’ dedication to excellence in the safe decommissioning of the Zion Nuclear Power Station, and we are extremely proud of our employees for the efficient work completed,” EnergySolutions President Ken Robuck said while updating the project’s status late last month.

Nearly two years after stopping power production at Vermont Yankee, Entergy announced Tuesday that it has an agreement to sell the Vernon plant — and the trust fund meant to pay for its cleanup — to New York-based NorthStar Group Services Inc.

The sale, which is subject to state and federal approval, is expected to close by the end of 2018.

NorthStar would be partnering with three companies to undertake the massive cleanup job in Vernon and is pledging to finish decommissioning and site restoration by 2030. That’s 45 years sooner than Entergy’s decommissioning timeline.

Entergy Vice President Jeff Forbes, left, and President Bill Mohl, right, tell a room full of reporters how the Louisiana-based corporation plans to proceed with shutting down and dismantling the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
Entergy President Bill Mohl, right, and Vice President Jeff Forbes speak to reporters in 2013. File photo
Entergy’s plan is novel: An NRC spokesman said he was not aware of any decommissioning plant being sold to another company. And Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, declared on Tuesday that “we believe this could set a model for future decommissioning efforts.”

At the same time, though, Mohl said Entergy “certainly looked at” what’s happening at Zion.

That plant, about 50 miles north of Chicago, was shut in early 1998 by Commonwealth Edison, a subsidiary of Exelon.

Though Exelon is a giant in the energy industry, the company eventually looked to Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions — which, coincidentally, has been handling water disposal at Vermont Yankee — to undertake decommissioning at Zion.

EnergySolutions formed a subsidiary, ZionSolutions, which took over Zion’s federal NRC license in September 2010.

At the time, it was billed as a “first-of-its-kind approach to accelerate the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.” Administrators said the idea was to push Zion’s cleanup “at least 12 years ahead of schedule.”

Mohl pointed out that there is a major difference between the Zion arrangement and the Vermont Yankee proposal: While Entergy wants to sell the Vernon plant outright to NorthStar, Exelon has maintained ownership of Zion and will take custody of the plant’s spent fuel when decommissioning is finished.

The two cleanups also differ in size and scale. Zion had two reactors capable of churning out a combined 2,000 megawatts of power, and the site covers 256 acres. Yankee was a single-unit, 605-megawatt plant on 125 acres.

But there are similarities, as well. The plants are of the same vintage — Vermont Yankee opened in 1972, and Zion received its operating licenses the following year, NRC records show.

There are similar spent-fuel storage needs. Vermont Yankee will need 58 sealed casks to hold its used fuel, and EnergySolutions has said there are 61 spent fuel casks at Zion.

Decommissioning work at the Zion nuclear plant in Illinois. Photo courtesy of ZionSolutions
Cleanup cost estimates have been in the same neighborhood, relatively speaking. Entergy has projected decommissioning will cost $1.24 billion at Vermont Yankee, while Exelon has said Zion’s cleanup is a $1 billion job.

That number, however, may be shrinking. Although there were reports that Zion decommissioning had faced funding shortfalls, ZionSolutions issued an update a few weeks ago saying the job is on budget.

The announcement also said decommissioning is “88 percent complete and several years ahead of the original 10-year schedule.” The accelerated schedule, the document said, “will directly translate into a lower overall decommissioning cost.”

The company has touted several achievements and milestones at Zion. All the plant’s spent fuel had been loaded into 61 dry casks by January 2015, and administrators characterized it as “the largest fuel-transfer campaign to date in the United States.”

And in March this year, ZionSolutions said it had removed the last of the “large components” from the plant. Large components include steam generators, pressurizers, pipe, reactor coolant pumps and motors.

ZionSolutions has an advantage — via its parent company — when disposing of Zion’s waste. The NRC says the contractor is “using a ‘rip and ship’ process that will reduce the labor-intensive separation of contaminated materials and transport the (waste) in bulk to the EnergySolutions disposal site in Utah and to (Waste Control Solutions) in Texas.”

That same disposal advantage appears to be built into the proposed Vermont Yankee decommissioning arrangement: Waste Control Solutions would be one of NorthStar’s partners in Vernon. Entergy pointed out, in announcing the NorthStar deal, that WCS would be responsible for waste management at Yankee and operates a radioactive waste site in Andrews, Texas.

Despite the positive reports coming from Zion of late, an EnergySolutions spokesman said Friday he would not answer questions about the project.

Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan. File photo from The Commons
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan could not verify the company’s claim that Zion decommissioning is 88 percent finished, but he did say the project “is progressing and is fairly far along.”

“We have had inspectors at Zion during crucial decommissioning activities and at other times, and we have not observed any significant performance issues,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan reiterated that the NRC will apply the same scrutiny to Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning and the proposed sale to NorthStar.

“We’ll want to know if NorthStar and its decommissioning contracting firms are qualified to carry out the dismantlement and radiological cleanup of Vermont Yankee,” Sheehan said.

“This would include the appropriate financial and technical capabilities,” he added. “The amount of money available to perform this work via the plant’s decommissioning trust fund and any other sources will be considered as part of this review.”

Financial questions are among the issues and concerns raised in the wake of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee sale announcement. But in a statement issued Friday, the Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition offered a potentially positive financial link between Zion and Vermont Yankee.

In both cases, said the coalition’s senior technical adviser, Ray Shadis, the actual cost of cleanup may be far less than the plant operators initially had claimed.

“People, including regulators, often just don’t get it,” Shadis said. “Decommissioning can be a profitable business.”

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  • Gav Gregory

    Look at the list of projects on NorthStars website, the closest thing to decommissioning a commercial nuclear power plant they’ve accomplished is a tiny research reactor. Combine that with their sketchy corporate structure and you can already see schedule and then financial troubles that an LLC is designed to run away from, leaving VT holding the bag. Hold EntergyLouisiana’s feet to the fire. They’ve got the deeper pockets.

  • James Hopf

    Of note is the fact that Zion has two 1040 MW reactors whereas Vt. Yankee is a single, 620 MW reactor. And yet, the Yankee decommissioning will cost ~$1.24 billion, vs. $1 billion for Zion?? A higher absolute cost for ~30% as much reactor capacity? What is behind these absurdly escalating decom cost estimates, in VT, and even more so in California?

    • Dirk Bender

      Good point. Many factors have an influence on costs: in Zion the rip-and-ship approach made it unnecessary to cut up the steam generators and other primary components inside containment saving on labor costs and containers, perhaps other agreements for spent fuel storage or other radiological conditions (e.g. fuel leakage, …). etc. Sometimes regulating bodies impose conditions (e.g. chemical decon prior to deconstruction). In the nuclear business these factors can have a major impact on costs.