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VERNON — The Vermont Department of Health is still planning for the worst at the Vermont Yankee site in Vernon.

But the worst, thanks to the active decommissioning of the Vermont Yankee site currently underway, is not as bad as it could have been six years ago, when Vermont Yankee shut down and its nuclear fuel was moved out of the reactor core and put into storage in giant steel and concrete casks.

“The Health Department’s Radiological and Nuclear Emergency Response Plan originally had a heavy emphasis on releases from Vermont Yankee, which could impact large areas and populations while it operated. Even with the shutdown of Vermont Yankee, we continue to maintain many of our resources for radiological emergency response,” said William Irwin, the state’s radiological health chief.

“Regarding Vermont Yankee scenarios, we focus on incidents more likely after shutdown, including fires, transportation incidents and terrorist attacks,” Irwin said. “We have leveraged our planning and partnerships to incorporate guidance relative to terrorist attacks into our Health Department plan. It devotes much more to terrorist attacks, whether they impact Vermont from inside our borders or from other cities and states,” he said.

Health Department, hazmat teams at the ready

Irwin said the state still trains first responders, the Health Department assessment scientists and the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team for incidents involving Vermont Yankee, as well as other scenarios.

“We have also had annual drills, tabletop and full-scale exercises to test our plans,” he said, noting that the drills and exercises are often done with the five other New England states, which belong to the New England Radiological Health Compact.

The Vermont Department of Health now takes the lead for state planning about concerns at Vermont Yankee, according to Mark Bosma, spokesman for the Vermont Department of Emergency Management.

“[The department] is no longer involved in planning for the site, as it’s been deemed that there are no offsite hazards,” Bosma said recently. “The Vermont Department of Health still does have plans for the site as it does for other hazardous waste sites.”

He said that the security force at the Vernon site does coordinate planning for possible security scenarios with local and state law enforcement.

Twenty years ago, Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station was likely Vermont’s No. 1 potential target for terrorists in an otherwise quiet and lightly-populated state.

Nuke facilities were al-Qaida’s first choice

According to federal reports that came out after the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the group of al-Qaeda terrorists had first considered a nuclear facility as its first choice for destruction, but then shifted to the World Trade Center and government targets in Washington, D.C.

And in the year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, security was beefed up with millions of dollars in investment at the country’s commercial nuclear reactors, including Vermont Yankee. In Vernon, the owners spent $8 million on new fences and barricades, guard towers, security staff and high tech sensors, not to mention guns.

With the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, much of that security apparatus is being torn down, carted away and, in some instances, sold.

But round-the-clock security does remain at Vermont Yankee at Vernon, just not the same that existed in 2001 or 2014, when it ceased generating electricity. And that security will remain for the foreseeable future, even after 2026, when the demolition and cleanup at Yankee is expected to be completed by NorthStar Holding Co.

“The primary security focus after a nuclear plant decommission is the spent nuclear fuel at the site,” said Neil Sheehan, a longtime Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman. “And once the fuel is removed from the spent fuel pools and loaded into dry cask storage, the focus shifts to the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, or ISFSI.”

“At several plants in New England, including Vermont Yankee, Yankee Rowe, Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee, all of the fuel from the plants’ operational years is now housed in ISFSIs,” Sheehan said.

All dry cask sites have armed security

Sheehan said that security programs and requirements remain in place for all of the dry cask facilities.

“And they will stay that way for as long as the fuel remains on-site. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors still review the facilities periodically and check that they are adhering to all applicable regulations. Armed guards keep close watch on the casks around the clock, and there are other security measures in place to ensure the fuel remains safe and fully protected,” he said.

He said after 9/11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission initiated a security and engineering review.

“The review looked at what might happen if terrorists used an aircraft to attack a nuclear power plant. The NRC also assessed the potential consequences of other types of terrorist attacks,” he said.

He said experts from Department of Energy’s laboratories used state-of-the-art experiments and structural and fire analyses to assess the danger.

‘Low risk’ of radioactive release

“While the details are classified, the studies confirm the likelihood of a radioactive release affecting public health and safety is low,” he said.

He said another study analyzed how nuclear power plants could withstand damage to, or loss of, large areas of the plant caused by large fires or explosions.

“Based on insights from these studies, additional mitigating capabilities were put in place at all nuclear power plants,” he said.

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“Security at U.S. nuclear plants was already robust prior to the 9/11 attacks,” he said.

But Sheehan said the attacks of 9/11 did change the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as well.

“There were numerous lessons learned to emerge from the event for the NRC. The agency revised its regulations to ensure that the plants and other NRC-licensed facilities continue to have effective security measures in place,” he said.

More training, more qualifications

He said regulations put in place after 2001 required power plants to add more training and higher qualification standards for security personnel, while increasing the number of officers on the force.

He said to minimize security personnel fatigue and ensure “a vigilant and effective security force,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission also instituted additional fitness-for-duty requirements and work hours controls.

He said the commission works closely with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, intelligence agencies, the departments of Defense and Energy, as well as state and local law-enforcement agencies. “These relationships would allow the NRC to act quickly on any threats to its licensed facilities,” he said.

Deb Katz, the executive director of Citizens Awareness Network, a New England-wide anti-nuclear group, said her group supports ambitious improvements to the storage facilities.

“We support hardening the waste on site. This includes double walling the casks, increasing the distance between the casks, if possible, berming them in to protect them from acts of malice,” she said.

“The waste must stay on site until there is a scientifically sound and environmentally just solution,” she said, referring to a nuclear industry move toward building interim nuclear waste storage facilities. One is proposed for west Texas, the other in New Mexico.

Poor areas targeted for fuel sites: advocate

“The industry relies on targeting working poor, people of color and Native Americans to make their waste problem disappear, so it can reinvent itself as an answer to climate change,” Katz said.

NorthStar, a New York City industrial demolition company, bought the shut-down Vermont Yankee plant from Entergy Nuclear in 2019. Demolition began even before money changed hands, and security requirements, always a highly secretive matter, started changing.

“Since taking ownership of Vermont Yankee, NorthStar has maintained appropriate industrial security on the site with a well-trained, well-equipped security force. NorthStar has retained the core of the security force whose members served on the site prior to the change from operating nuclear facility to active decommissioning,” said Scott State, president of NorthStar.

“The cessation of nuclear energy generation at the site has allowed the overall security perimeter to shrink with a focus on the area around the independent spent fuel storage installation. NorthStar’s specific security protocols are confidential and consistent with Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations,” State said, in response to questions.

Cyberthreats now a challenge

Michael Schirling, the commissioner for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, said Vermont now faces not just physical threats, such as an attack at the fuel storage facility at Vermont Yankee, but cyberattacks, like one that hit the University of Vermont Medical Center within the past year.

Schirling, along with other law enforcement officials, were reluctant to discuss possible Vermont terrorist targets.

“Vermont, like every state, has critical infrastructure and key public places. While there are some in the United States that present themselves as large and flamboyant targets, the reality is there are many potential targets of varying scale all over the country,” he said.

He said after 9/11, in addition to increased intelligence gathering, there was what he called an “evolution” in educating the public to be observant and vigilant. People need to report what they perceive to be suspicious activity, he said.

‘See something, say something’

“It’s the ‘see something, say something,’” he said. “It may look like a little bit off, and it ends up not being anything, but it’s one of the first lines of defense.”

He said obvious targets have undergone “hardening,” he said. “One of the first lines of defense is hardening targets and creating redundancies.”

Outside of Vermont, he said, on a federal and international level, there are large-scale, what he called “disruptive activities” that protect the country. The goal, he said, is to “intercept and disrupt.”

Cyber security has always been a big part of his law enforcement thinking, said Schirling, who was chief of the Burlington Police Department before he went to work for state government.

On 9/11, Schirling said, he was in the airport in Albuquerque, N.M., on his way to a cyber security conference in Los Angeles.

“Needless to say, I never got there,” he said.

Susan Smallheer can be reached at ssmallheer@reformer.com.