VERNON — Even as Vermont Yankee's accelerated cleanup plan appears to be gaining momentum, the question of what to do with the plant's radioactive spent fuel remains unanswered.
But two companies with ties to the Vernon plant's decommissioning proposal now say they might also have a solution for that fuel.
Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA — formerly known as AREVA Nuclear Materials — have joined forces to revive an effort to build an interim spent fuel storage facility in Andrews County, Texas.
Much work and expense remains before the proposal can become reality, and interim storage is not without controversy. But if the companies are successful, the Texas site might represent a long-sought destination for spent fuel from Vermont Yankee and other nuclear plants nationwide.
"We believe that it's the best site available in the country to do something like this," said Scott State, Waste Control Specialists' chief executive officer.
State also is chief executive of NorthStar Group Services, which is proposing to buy Vermont Yankee from current owner Entergy. New York-based NorthStar has pledged to clean up most of the idled nuclear plant site as soon as 2026, which is decades faster than Entergy proposed.
A recent settlement deal involving Entergy, NorthStar, state officials and other entities could pave the way for the NorthStar deal to be consummated by the end of this year. But approvals are needed from the Vermont Public Utility Commission and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
To bolster its case for buying Vermont Yankee, NorthStar proposed contracting with Waste Control Specialists and AREVA as part of a "dream team" that would tackle the decommissioning project. Waste Control operates a low-level radioactive waste-disposal facility in Texas, and AREVA has experience taking apart reactors.
Since NorthStar first made its pitch in late 2016, there have been corporate changes affecting all three companies:
- Last year, NorthStar was purchased by J.F. Lehman & Co., a New York private equity firm.
Administrators said the deal boosted NorthStar's "financial capacity" to take on big projects like nuclear decommissioning.
- Earlier this year, Lehman also snapped up Waste Control Specialists. That was portrayed as a positive financial move: Waste Control administrators had complained publicly of money problems and last year saw their proposed merger with a different disposal company blocked by a federal judge after the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit.
- Also this year, AREVA changed its name to Orano as the company was "refocused on nuclear materials development and waste management."
Now, even as they have continued to pursue the Vermont Yankee decommissioning job, the companies are aligning to tackle the problem of spent nuclear fuel.
Because the federal government has not fulfilled its statutory obligation to develop a national repository for high-level nuclear waste, each plant - including Vermont Yankee - has been forced to keep its spent fuel on site.
That transforms those plants into costly, high-security storage areas. Plant owners regularly and successfully sue the U.S. Department of Energy to recover their spent fuel storage costs.
There is currently no prospect for a permanent storage facility. The proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site in Nevada was shelved in 2011, and it has not received any additional funding despite President Donald Trump's desire to revive the project.
So attention has turned to the concept of "consolidated interim storage" - in other words, a place to gather spent nuclear fuel until a permanent solution is found.
There are two such projects proposed. One is in New Mexico, proposed by Florida-based Holtec International; the other is the Orano/Waste Control Specialists project in Texas.
Waste Control initially proposed the Texas project in 2016 and then suspended it last year. But the company's purchase by J.F. Lehman, along with the new partnership with Orano, has breathed new life into the proposal.
Waste Control's low-level radioactive waste dump already accepts Vermont Yankee waste via a multistate agreement called the Texas Compact. The facility also would be accepting "most if not all" of the low-level waste generated during Vermont Yankee decommissioning, State said.
Administrators now want to expand that facility so that it also could accept - on an interim basis - high-level nuclear waste like spent fuel. The idea, State said, is "bringing that material to one central location where it can be properly monitored and ultimately prepared to go to permanent disposal, wherever that might be."
State said the project could "save the United States government a substantial amount of money." But he acknowledged that it will require two levels of federal approval: The NRC must license the interim storage site, and then the Department of Energy must agree to send spent fuel there.
State said permitting work "is all being done with our own funds and at risk," with no guarantee that the Energy Department will get on board. If the NRC approves the facility, "we would have the opportunity to discuss with (the Energy Department) options to make the site viable for their use," State said.
"It's kind of like the field of dreams - you've got to build it and they will come, is our view here," he said.
State's comments came during a Thursday meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. One panel member, Lissa Weinmann of Brattleboro, expressed skepticism about the Texas plan.
Weinmann questioned State's claims that the federal government would save money, given that interim storage would require that nuclear waste be moved twice - first to a temporary site and later to a permanent facility.
State said Waste Control Specialists has done its own internal economic analysis.
"Our process is one where we will spend our own money and make a proposal to the Department of Energy, and they'll either find it compelling or they won't," he said. "And part of that proposal will be to show what we believe are the economic benefits."
Weinmann also said she believed that moving spent fuel to interim storage requires a change in federal law. State disputed that.
"The approach that we're considering here would not require a change to the law as it exists today," State said.
But he declined to divulge details in answer to Weinmann's questions.
"There's a proprietary nature to the business that we're developing here," State said. "I can't get into the details of what we are going to propose to do."
Mike Faher can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.