VERNON -- The soon-to-close Vermont Yankee nuclear plant wants to stop more than $2 million in annual payments for emergency planning in the region, but a watchdog group opposes that, saying nuclear waste on-site will create continuing risks.
Plant officials have told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the radioactive spent fuel will have cooled enough by mid-2016 that they should then be able to stop paying to maintain the 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around the plant.
The plant is closing at the end of this year.
The zone extends out from the reactor in Vernon in Vermont's southeast corner to six Vermont towns and parts of neighboring New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
The plant maintains emergency sirens in each town, provides each household with a tone-alert radio, distributes an annual calendar with emergency information and supports regular drills by emergency personnel.
The risks of storing spent nuclear fuel in storage pools at plant sites have been hotly debated in recent years, with some state regulators and nuclear critics saying the fuel is safer in the concrete and steel storage casks that many plants have been using in recent decades because they've been running out of room in their pools.
Five U.S. senators wrote to the NRC in May to urge it to expedite movement of the spent fuel from fuel pools to dry casks.
Erica Bornemann, a Vermont Emergency Management official overseeing disaster planning around Vermont Yankee, said the next full-scale drill next year will focus on the potential for a catastrophe resulting from "a hostile act."
Short of that, Raymond Shadis of the nuclear watchdog group New England Coalition pointed to an NRC document describing the possibility of an accident during the process of unloading the spent fuel pool. The casks are brought into the pool as they are loaded. The NRC document raised the possibility that one of the 110-ton casks could be dropped.
Vermont Yankee has said it expects there to be some fuel remaining in the pool until 2021, when the last of it will have been moved into dry casks.
Bornemann argued that until the spent fuel pool is emptied, there should be some level of enhanced emergency response capability around the nuclear plant.
Just weeks after the senators wrote their letter, the NRC rejected calls for speeding up the transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks, saying too little was to be gained from a safety perspective to warrant such a ruling.
Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, said Vermont and neighboring states are pressing the NRC not to let Vermont Yankee drop the emergency response efforts. But he acknowledged that, given the NRC's position that spent fuel pools provide safe storage for the nuclear waste, the states' chances of prevailing may be slim.
On Friday, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency was reviewing Vermont Yankee's request to end its support for emergency planning. He said the agency had never rejected such a request from a plant undergoing decommissioning.