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

[T]wo companies are moving forward with a project that could create a destination for Vermont Yankee’s radioactive spent fuel.

Orano USA and Waste Control Specialists – jointly doing business as Interim Storage Partners – have submitted an application asking federal regulators to approve a Texas facility that could accept spent nuclear fuel as soon as 2022.

It’s the second such application in the U.S. If the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission approves either or both of those projects, it could solve a major financial and environmental concern in Vernon.

“With an interim storage option, the United States could finally begin the process of removing stranded used nuclear fuel from local communities and consolidating it at a single secure site while an ultimate, long-term federal facility is debated,” Interim Storage Partners administrators wrote in an overview of the Texas project.

Vermont Yankee owner Entergy, which stopped power production in Vernon at the end of 2014, wants to sell the plant to NorthStar Group Services, a New York-based demolition and remediation company.

NorthStar says it can clean up most of the site by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026, which is decades faster than Entergy’s plans. But the key word is “most,” because all of Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel will remain in Vernon for the foreseeable future until the federal Department of Energy figures out what to do with it.

Currently, spent fuel is stranded at nuclear plants across the nation. Plant owners are successfully suing the Energy Department for damages because of the federal government’s failure to adhere to fuel-storage obligations in the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, resulting in billions of dollars in taxpayer liability.

At one point, spent fuel was supposed to go to the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. That controversial project is on hold, though pending federal legislation seeks to revive it.

That same legislation also supports so-called “consolidated interim storage.” Though the concept is controversial, advocates say it would provide a much-needed, shorter-term storage option while officials find a place to put spent fuel permanently.

One such interim storage site has been proposed in New Mexico by Holtec International, a Florida company that makes the fuel-storage casks used at Vermont Yankee. The NRC is in the process of reviewing that application.

Now, Interim Storage Partners is looking for the same consideration. The company recently announced that it has sent a “renewed license application” to the NRC for a facility in Andrews County, Texas, that eventually could store 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel.

The interim storage project has somewhat rocky history. Originally pitched by Waste Control Specialists in 2016, the company last year suspended the project amid financial issues and a pending corporate merger that eventually was nixed by a federal judge.

Vermont Yankee
A loaded spent fuel cask arrives on a storage pad at Vermont Yankee, and crews prepare to lower it to the concrete. Photo courtesy of Entergy

But things apparently have changed dramatically since Waste Control Specialists was purchased earlier this year by J.F. Lehman & Co., a New York private equity firm.

Waste Control subsequently joined forces with Orano, a nuclear services company, in order to form Interim Storage Partners and revive the Texas project. The storage area would be located on an existing low-level nuclear waste disposal site operated by Waste Control Specialists.

Interim Storage is seeking an initial 40-year license from the NRC. The company says spent nuclear fuel would be stored in “robust above-ground modules constructed of thick reinforced concrete” that are “proven to withstand environmental and external hazards including tornados, earthquakes and flooding.”

“We are pleased to re-energize this application and begin addressing the industry’s increasing need for completing the decommissioning of shutdown nuclear energy facilities across the country,” Jeff Isakson, Interim Storage’s president, said in a prepared statement accompanying the license-application announcement.

Neil Sheehan
Neil Sheehan, Nuclear Regulatory Commission. NRC photo

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the commission hasn’t yet formally accepted Interim Storage’s application.

“We would need to complete an initial acceptance review before we could embark on a much more detailed technical review,” Sheehan said.

Nevertheless, there is optimism among those involved with the Texas project.

Interim Storage’s website says the Texas site could open within four years. And NorthStar administrators have said they “should be able to remove the irradiated fuel from (Vermont Yankee) by no later than 2030” due to the likely opening of an interim storage facility.

There’s a Vermont Yankee thread that runs through all of the players in the Texas proposal.

Orano – formerly called AREVA Nuclear Materials – is a proposed subcontractor on the Vermont Yankee decommissioning job as proposed by NorthStar. The company would take on the key task of dismantling and shipping away the plant’s reactor.

Also, J.F. Lehman – the same company that purchased Waste Control Specialists earlier this year – also purchased NorthStar in 2017. And NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State serves the same role with Waste Control.

At a meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel earlier this year, State said the Texas project would save taxpayer money and represents “the best site available in the country to do something like this.”

Twitter: @MikeFaher. Mike Faher reports on health care and Vermont Yankee for VTDigger. Faher has worked as a daily newspaper journalist for 19 years, most recently as lead reporter at the Brattleboro...