MONTPELIER -- A former U.S. Department of Energy official told Vermont lawmakers on Thursday that nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee pose big risks in their handling of nuclear waste -- both financial and radiological.
The testimony of Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, comes as some lawmakers are urging that Vermont consider a new tax on the highly radioactive nuclear waste being stored at the Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon. Alvarez said Minnesota levies such a tax.
Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser at the federal Department of Energy, told the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that Vermont Yankee has generated more than 600 metric tons of high-level radioactive waste during its 41 years of operation. He urged that it be moved more quickly from the plant's spent fuel storage pool to dry concrete and steel casks on the plant's grounds, where he said it would be safer.
The pool "contains about nine times more cesium-137 (a radioactive isotope) than was released from the more than 600 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests around the world," said Alvarez, who acknowledged under questioning from Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, that his current employer takes an anti-nuclear stance. Alvarez added that the Vermont Yankee pool "contains more than the entire inventory of spent fuel in the four damaged reactors at the Fukushima site" in Japan.
Nuclear waste has been piling up at reactors around the country as the federal government still has not fulfilled a promise made in federal law to open a permanent disposal site by 1998. Alvarez said the Energy Department's most recent estimates have a waste site opening in 2048 -- a half century late.
He and lawmakers also expressed concern about the ability and willingness of Vermont Yankee's owner, Entergy Corp., to take care after the plant's closing of waste that experts say will remain radioactive for 250,000 years or more.
Committee Chairman Rep. Tony Klein said after the committee meeting that one of the challenges for waste planners is what sort of communication to put on warning signs at waste sites, assuming that whatever organisms exist in 250,000 years still read written signs.
Howard Shaffer, an engineer with the group Nuclear Public Outreach who attended Thursday's hearing but did not testify, said afterward that the public should not be alarmed about the safety of nuclear waste. He argued that it can be managed safely.
In the nearer term, Alvarez said that Entergy and other companies owning nuclear plants are often structured in a way which may shield a parent company from responsibility for cleaning up nuclear waste.
"Limited liability corporations are relatively new business structures that can enhance a parent corporation's ability to transfer funds from its subsidiaries and to shield assets from liability for financial risk," he said.
Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment.