State troubled by Vermont Yankee rubble plan

Vermont Yankee
An aerial photo of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon.

BRATTLEBORO – State regulators and anti-nuclear activists are taking a stand against a proposal to reuse large amounts of Vermont Yankee’s concrete as fill when the plant is decommissioned.

The latest objections to the so-called “rubblization” plan come from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the state Public Service Department. Officials want to know whether concrete from the retired nuclear plant is safe for burial on the Vernon property.

“We want to feel comfortable … that the material is truly clean,” said Chuck Schwer, director of the agency’s Waste Management and Prevention Division.

Northstar Group Services says rubblization is common and offers environmental and safety benefits. At a meeting in Brattleboro Thursday night, NorthStar CEO Scott State defended the plans for cleaning up Vermont Yankee.

“Our objective here is pretty simple,” State said. “We expect to clean the site up. We expect to do it in a safe and compliant manner and deliver a site that’s not impaired, that’s not a brownfield site. It’s a site that can be redeveloped and used for other purposes.”

Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 and wants to sell the plant to New York-based NorthStar by the end of next year. NorthStar says it can restore most of the site as early as 2026, which is decades ahead of what Entergy had proposed.

The change of ownership is under review by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Utility Commission.

The restoration of the Vermont Yankee site appears to be the biggest point of contention. At issue is how much NorthStar, after satisfying the NRC’s radiological cleanup requirements, will safely restore the site for future reuse.

State, Northstar’s CEO, addressed both radiological and non-radiological issues at Thursday’s meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

He reiterated the company’s pledge to pursue a residual radioactivity exposure level of 15 millirem per year at the decommissioned Yankee site. That’s below the NRC’s 25 millirem requirement for what the federal agency calls an “unrestricted” release of radiation at a nuclear plant site.

State also outlined NorthStar’s plan to remove underground structures such as foundations and piping to a depth of 4 feet. The proposal allows for “removal of structures below that level if those structures are contaminated,” State said.

Schwer, an environmental regulator for the state, is concerned about the how the structures that are left in place will be sampled for contamination. He wrote in testimony that “allowing underground structures to remain in place may limit future uses of the site.”

NorthStar is tailoring the remediation work for future industrial redevelopment. State said it’s possible the property could also be available for residential use, but he’s not sure it would be a marketable spot for homes.

That’s in part because, even after decommissioning, Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel will remain on site under 24-hour security surveillance until the federal government develops a central repository for high level nuclear waste.

“I wouldn’t say you wouldn’t be able to live there. I’m just not sure people would want to,” State said.

Whatever the property’s future, NorthStar’s plan to bury rubble on site is coming under intense scrutiny.

Testimony from NorthStar and Entergy has shown that as much as 1.1 million cubic feet of crushed concrete could be reused as fill at Vermont Yankee. On Thursday, State sought to reassure officials that only “clean aggregate” will be used.

State said he’s heard concerns that NorthStar would mix clean rubble with contaminated rubble. “That’s not our intention,” he said. “That’s never been our proposal.”

He also said the rubblization plan is not a guaranteed money-saver.

Entergy testimony has indicated that NorthStar “could save millions of dollars” by reusing concrete at Vermont Yankee. But State said the work involved in testing, decontaminating and crushing concrete could negate savings associated with transportation and landfill disposal.

“On any given project, you can’t really figure out what (the potential cost benefit) is until you get into it,” State said.

There are other advantages, though. Doug Larson of Geosyntec Consultants, a firm not connected to the Vermont Yankee project, told the nuclear advisory panel that rubblization is “pretty widely used” in construction and is accepted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in nuclear decommissioning projects.

Clean concrete “can be used as an environmentally safe fill” without long-term concerns about water contamination, Larson said.

There are also potential environmental benefits such as decreased landfill use and decreased use of disposal trucks.

More trucks also would mean more heavy traffic on local roads, and that could be a safety concern. If NorthStar can’t reuse concrete, it will have to bring in large amounts of fill from other places, State said.

Due to the railroad infrastructure at Vermont Yankee, “we can move (concrete) material off by rail, but we have to move material back on with trucks,” State said. “We’re looking at some 3,000 to 5,000 loads of material that would have to come to the site.”

The purported advantages of rubblization haven’t overridden some observers’ concerns.

Schwer told the advisory panel that, contrary to Entergy’s claims, the full extent of radiation contamination at Vermont Yankee remains a mystery. And officials say it’s not yet clear how NorthStar will address contamination before crushing and burying the concrete.

Schwer wrote in testimony filed with the utility commission that if tainted concrete is buried, “there is the potential that residual contamination could remain undetected below the surface, spread over time and pose a risk to public health and the environment.”

Another problem is that Entergy, in previous dealings with Vermont officials, pledged not to rubblize concrete at Vermont Yankee. A 2013 settlement agreement with the state says Entergy “shall not employ rubblization at the VY Station site (i.e., demolition of an above-grade decontaminated concrete structure into rubble that is buried on site).”

The Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition, which has consistently criticized NorthStar’s decommissioning plans, claims that NorthStar’s rubblization proposal should require the Public Utility Commission to re-open past Entergy dockets.

It will be up to the utility commission to decide whether rubblization is acceptable. NorthStar is lobbying hard to preserve the option, but rejection of the concrete-reuse proposal may not be enough to scuttle the Vermont Yankee sale.

“It’s an element of our overall proposed approach,” State said in an interview Friday. “In and of itself, as in individual item, it might not be a deal-breaker. (But) it kind of goes hand-in-hand with other considerations.”

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