Shadis: Clean up Vermont Yankee now, not later

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It's a kind of inside joke, and a not very funny one at that. Archer Mayor's latest police procedural novel, "Presumption of Guilt," is set at Vermont Yankee. A decommissioning crew finds a body buried in a cement slab beneath a warehouse set for demolition.

Tres cool. Though Entergy VY would likely argue, as it did with buried pipes carrying radioactive material, notably tritium, that a body is not actually "buried" if it is encased in concrete (or a coffin) and not in direct contact with the soil.

In the real world of decommissioning the "buried bodies" are areas of radiologically contaminated soil, concrete, or other objects, up to and including nuclear fuel particles that were spilled, dumped, or otherwise released to the open environment sometime in the reactor's operating history. As shown in Entergy VY's 2014 Site Assessment Study, reliance on written records, a paper chase, will yield less than a complete picture. When it comes to releases of radiological materials, what surfaces in the record is often the tip of the iceberg, not the bulk which remains submerged, buried.

At Maine Yankee, we decided on prompt rather than delayed decommissioning in part because we would be able to involve veteran employees who had witnessed the various spills, releases, inventory gone astray over the plant's 26-year operating history. History keepers, we reasoned, know best where the bodies are buried. Their first-hand recollections and knowledgeable scouting for hot spots proved valuable in avoiding radiological surprises; otherwise costly in worker exposures and dollars. Today, Entergy VY can involve veteran employees in decommissioning who will be gone in 20, 30, 40, or 50 years.

When referencing Maine Yankee, I say "we" because, unlike Entergy VY, Maine Yankee Atomic Power Company sought stakeholder's informed input and agreement from the get-go. The result was state and community satisfaction and a decommissioning with record cleanup, minimal worker exposure, coming in on budget and almost on schedule (seven years, five months).

But that was another company in another time.

This is Entergy VY.

Nothing if not smug, Entergy VY remains committed to "Safstor" (see me Thursday, half a century from now).

Why? It could be because during its 14-year tenure at VY, Entergy set aside absolutely nothing (zero) for decommissioning and it doesn't intend to start contributing now

But wait, there's more.

According to Thomas LaGuardia, whose company, TLG Associates, now owned by Entergy, performed decommissioning cost studies for more than ninety percent of US reactors (including VY), "Project management costs can represent as much as 55 percent of total decommissioning costs, with 20 to 25 percent allocated for dismantling and around 25 to 30 percent for waste disposal," (Nuclear Energy Insider, Sept. 21) . So with virtually no corporate investment, Entergy stands to reap more than half of the projected $1.24 billion trust fund in decommissioning and spent fuel management fees.

"While most operators have chosen to defer D&D activities by using SAFSTOR, operators can benefit from using the alternative DECON (prompt) approach as it allows them to shift the financial liability for decommissioning activities to a contract company" La Guardia said "Although SAFSTOR requires a minimal initial outlay and delays spending on the main expenses, licensees need to manage NRC regulations and the site's nuclear liability over several decades."

Shifting financial liability to a decommissioning contract company is exactly what Exelon did for its two Zion, Ill., reactors, going to DECON after a decade or more of costly Safstor. Savings brought decommissioning of the two reactors down to around $900 million. At least two other plants are following the Zion example.

In a separate interview with Nuclear Energy Insider (Oct. 23), Geoffrey Rothwell, Principal Economist at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Nuclear Energy Agency, said operators should start decommissioning activities as early as possible as the deferral of D&D exposes operators to delay-related costs, investment risks and loss of crucial expertise as workers leave the industry.

"A major advantage of carrying out D&D activities immediately is that current operations staff have in-depth knowledge of plant specifics which avoids unnecessary work-arounds," Rothwell said. "By deferring D&D activities, operators raise the chance of chemical or radiation leaks spreading and the introduction of stiffer regulation. While decommissioning cost estimates have risen, rates of return for DTFs have been lower than expectations, and operators which have accelerated closure plans should leverage current staff expertise and optimize decommissioning schedules to allocate decommission fund portfolios so the liquidity matches your plans."

A big plus at VY is that Entergy has recently shown signs that it cares what stakeholders think, by consulting on tritium-contaminated water disposal and funding for emergency planning.

It's only good business.

Entergy VY should borrow the upfront money from Entergy Louisiana to go to DECON now; repaying the loan from the decommissioning trust fund when it matures.

Raymond Shadis has been a Trustee of Brattleboro-based New England Coalition since 1982. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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