Welch bill would compensate nuclear fuel communities

Vermont Yankee
A tracked transporter vehicle nicknamed “Cletus” slowly moves a loaded cask of spent fuel at Vermont Yankee. Photo courtesy of Entergy

VERNON – Regardless of how quickly Vermont Yankee is decommissioned, Vernon will be stuck with the plant’s spent nuclear fuel for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., thinks that hardship should be worth some money — by his formula, potentially more than $18 million a year.

Welch has teamed with a Connecticut congressman to introduce a bill requiring the federal government to send annual compensation to communities that are forced to host radioactive waste due to the lack of a national repository for the material.

It’s not the legislation’s first go-around. But Welch is hoping other pending nuclear plant closures may spur more support for the bill this time.

“What it’s reflecting now is that there are a number of (congressional) members whose districts are seeing plants go offline,” Welch said.

Peter Welch
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in his office in Congress. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt
Vermont Yankee stopped power production in December 2014, and plant owner Entergy is in the process of transferring all of the site’s spent fuel from a cooling pool into sealed “dry casks” on two concrete storage pads.

Entergy administrators are hoping, when that fuel move is done in 2018, to sell the plant to New York-based NorthStar Group Services. NorthStar says it can clean up most of the property by 2030.

But NorthStar can’t do anything about the plant’s spent fuel. That material is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Energy, and federal officials have not fulfilled their statutory obligation to find a long-term central storage facility for such high-level nuclear waste.

That has turned nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee into de facto storage facilities for spent fuel, which must remain under tight 24-hour security.

Welch has expressed optimism about the potential development of a “consolidated interim storage facility” for spent fuel – meaning a site that’s not permanent, but one that could take fuel from places like Vermont Yankee.

Though one such interim storage proposal for Texas has been suspended, another in New Mexico is under review by federal regulators.

“We’re going to continue to pursue that alternative – longer-term storage,” Welch said. “We don’t want to have our communities hosting nuclear waste for decades, if not a century.”

In the meantime, though, he’s pursuing some relief for such communities. Welch and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., on Tuesday introduced the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act, which aims to compensate municipalities that host dormant nuclear plants and spent fuel.

The bill directs the Department of Energy to pay those municipalities $15 per kilogram of spent nuclear fuel each year. That’s the same rate, officials said, that would be paid to a community that agreed to host an interim fuel storage site under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

The legislation includes a provision to reduce that payment, if necessary, to ensure that all spent fuel host communities receive compensation.

Vermont Yankee
Vermont Yankee spent fuel pad. File photo courtesy of Vermont Yankee
Such an adjustment might be necessary given the sheer volume of spent fuel at former nuclear plants. Based on figures provided by Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel assemblies weigh about 2.7 million pounds, or 1.2 million kilograms, which would mean a payment of nearly $18.5 million for Vernon under the bill’s current funding formula.

In total, the bill authorizes a $100 million appropriation for the program each fiscal year from 2018 to 2024.

Where that money would come from is not clear. Although an initial news release cited a national nuclear waste fund, Welch spokeswoman Kate Hamilton later clarified that “if the bill becomes law, Congress would then have to appropriate the money to fund the program. Our legislation doesn’t specify a funding source at this time.”

Welch and Courtney believe the money would be well worth it.

“It is long past time for the federal government to live up to its commitments on spent nuclear fuel disposal,” said Courtney, whose district includes the former Connecticut Yankee plant. “We cannot allow small communities and municipalities (to) continue to be financially hurt while they await action on the establishment of a federal nuclear waste storage facility.”

Welch added that paying nuclear host communities “might provide some incentive for Congress to get moving quicker” on finding a national spent fuel storage facility. The federal government already is paying nuclear licensees who sue the Department of Energy to recover fuel storage costs.

Vernon Selectboard Chairman Josh Unruh said he appreciates the sentiment behind the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act. But he won’t be holding his breath while waiting for federal payments.

That’s because Unruh, a nuclear power supporter who has traveled outside Vermont to tell Vernon’s story, believes there’s a “stigma” attached to nuclear issues among the general population.

“It would be great if we could get an extra few bucks,” he said. “But it’s one of those things that I don’t actually see happening.”

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