Spent fuel rod storage containers at Entergy Vermont Yan­kee. (Reformer file photo)
Spent fuel rod storage containers at Entergy Vermont Yan­kee. (Reformer file photo)

BRATTLEBORO -- Entergy is in the beginning stages of seeking approval for a second concrete pad for the storage of spent nuclear fuel at its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. The pad will be used for the placement of 100-ton dry casks, which will each contain up to 25 tons of spent nuclear fuel once it has cooled down enough to be removed from the fuel pool located inside the plant's reactor building.

On June 30, Entergy will submit a formal application to the Vermont Public Service Board for a certificate of public good to construct the pad, but on Thursday it began the process by notifying Vernon's Planning Commission and Selectboard and the Windham Regional Commission of its intentions.

"Entergy today is beginning the regulatory process for state approval of a second concrete pad at the Vermont Yankee site to complete an initiative to move all of its spent nuclear fuel to passive, air-cooled dry storage," stated a press release from Entergy Wholesale Commodities in White Plains, N.Y. "Although the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has determined both storage modes to be safe, eliminating the spent fuel pool is necessary for decommissioning and is a first step toward transferring the spent fuel from the Vernon site to the U.S. Department of Energy for final disposal."

Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, said he was pleased to hear Entergy is getting the process underway.

"This the fulfillment of their commitment to us, a commitment that wasn't in the settlement agreement but made verbally," he said. "This is their good faith effort to get the process going to meet the goals and timing discussed in the agreement. We don't have details yet about where it will be built and how it's going to be paid for, but we appreciate the fact that Entergy took this step to meet its verbal agreement with us."

In late August 2013, Entergy announced it would be closing Yankee at the end of 2014 because it was no longer financially viable due to the fact that natural gas has driven down the costs of producing electricity.

Entergy signed a memorandum of agreement with the state that guaranteed it would begin cleaning up the site as soon as the decommissioning trust fund has reached the monetary levels necessary to complete the process. It is hoped decommissioning can be finished before 2030. But to begin dismantling the reactor building, Entergy needs to remove all the nuclear waste from the plant's spent nuclear fuel.

Mike Twomey, the vice president for external affairs for Entergy, said there's no reason why all the fuel can't be moved out of the reactor building by 2020, but when the actual decommissioning can begin is still not definitely known, he said.

"Gov. Shumlin has said based on his estimates of how much money is in the fund and how the fund has performed, the thought it could start in the late 2020s," said Twomey. "But we've been very careful not to provide that kind of estimate. We don't want to set any unrealistic expectations."

Entergy has sued the Department of Energy over its failure to take possession of the spent nuclear fuel at the plant. DOE has been tasked by Congress to establish a central repository for the storage of the waste that has been accumulating at nuclear sites around the country. The United States government spent more than $9 billion on establishing a site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that project was derailed due to local opposition, environmental concerns and pressure from Sen. Harry Reid.

In June 2012, a federal appeals court awarded Entergy nearly $88 million for its expenses related to the storage and management of spent fuel that was produced between 1972 and 2008. Last month, Entergy filed suit again, seeking compensation for storage and management of fuel produced after 2008. Lawsuits by nuclear power plant operators have been filed on a regular basis and the appeals court has awarded compensation in most cases, out of a fund that was built on charging ratepayers a fee on electricity.

The first storage pad at Vermont Yankee was constructed in 2006 and now holds 13 dry casks, with room for 23 more. Each cask contains 68 fuel assemblies, meaning there are now 884 assemblies in dry cask storage. There are another 2,627 spent fuel assemblies in the pool in the reactor building and another 368 assemblies currently in the reactor vessel. The proposed new pad will be similar in size and storage capacity to the one already on site.

"With a reasonable period for regulatory review and public input, it is likely that construction could be completed in 2017 and the transfer of all Vermont Yankee spent fuel from wet storage to dry could be completed in 2020," stated the press release.

Patty O'Donnell, the chairwoman of the Vernon Selectboard, said the letter from Entergy will be officially reviewed at the Selectboard's next meeting on May 19.

Groups that have advocated for nuclear safety were cheered by the letter.

"Coupled with the closure of Vermont Yankee by the end of the year, moving the spent fuel to dry cask storage is helpful to improve safety and reduce risks of future leaks," said Sandy Levine, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.

However, not everyone was pleased with the expansion request.

"New England Coalition believes that storage at a new site at a location away from the river and at a higher location should at least be evaluated," said Ray Shadis, technical consultant. "Such a site could allow for surrounding earthen berms or raised gravel-bed emplacement of the casks."

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.