VERNON — The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel distanced itself from a 2015 letter which endorsed the controversial proposal of creating an interim high-level nuclear waste storage facility, currently proposed for west Texas or New Mexico.
On a 8-1 vote, with four abstentions, the panel said it “holds no position” on the consolidated interim waste storage proposal, a reversal of the 2015 letter.
And in a companion 12-1 vote, the panel agreed to set up a subcommittee to study and investigate the issue of federal waste storage.
Panel vice-chairwoman Lissa Weinmann of Brattleboro had championed the reversal of the 2015 letter, saying that there was no public discussion by the panel before then-Chairwoman Kate O’Connor signed the letter, which was drafted by three other states decommissioning citizen groups.
The letter has been used as an indication that Vermont supports the controversial interim consolidated storage plan, according to Weinmann. Two companies, including NorthStar Vermont Yankee’s partner, Waste Control Specialists, and Holtec International, have proposed creating their own high-level nuclear fuel waste storage facilities in west Texas and southern New Mexico.
Such facilities are currently pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which currently does not have the authority to approve such an interim facility.
Weinmann has been asking the panel to revisit the 2015 letter for more than a year, and Monday night’s vote was a major step forward, she said afterward.
She said the panel is now on the record as neutral about the controversy, and by setting up a subcommittee to study the issue is finally doing the necessary homework to take a stand.
It was clear from the people who attended the virtual meeting, in addition to the panel, that people in Texas, New Mexico and Washington, D.C. were watching Vermont’s stand on the issue.
They said that it was an obvious case of environmental justice, and that the two proposed sites were in low-income Hispanic communities. Local people oppose the location of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel in their communities, they said.
Additionally, the state of New Mexico doesn’t even have a nuclear power reactor, one woman said.
Several people questioned Corey Daniels of NorthStar, the decommissioning manager, about the amount of radioactivity workers demolishing the plant were exposed to and how much radioactivity was in the waste that was being shipped to west Texas.
Many years ago, the state of Vermont joined with Texas to establish a low-level radioactive waste facility, in Texas. That facility is run by Waste Control Specialists.
The new proposed facility would be for the really “hot” radioactive waste, such as the old irradiated fuel rods. This material remains dangerous for an estimated 240,000 years
Schyler Gould of Brattleboro urged the panel to get more involved in nuclear waste issues.
“It’s time for the panel to ask the hard questions,” he said.
The panel heard updates from various state agencies about their roles in the decommissioning, whether it was monitoring groundwater or the finances of the project.
So far, the project is on schedule financially, with about $362 million left in the decommissioning trust fund to complete the project, which is expected to take about three more years.
“NorthStar is on course to complete the project with available funding,” said Eric Guzman, an attorney with the Department of Public Service. “Currently there are no red flags.”
Daniels, the NorthStar manager, said that so far there had been 600,000 work hours put into the project, “without a loss time accident.”
“That’s not to say we haven’t had any issues,” he said.
Three rail cars a week filled with low-level radioactive waste leave the Vernon site to head to the Waste Control Specialists site in west Texas, or about 14 cars a month. So far, there have been 200 rail cars worth of radioactive waste shipped there, he said.
Weinmann, who stepped down as the panel’s vice-chairwoman to focus on the new subcommittee on federal nuclear waste policy, said the group would be doing “a lot of studying.”
“We can be a model nationally,” she said.
The federal Department of Energy has failed to create a spent nuclear fuel storage facility despite decades of planning and work. Work on the proposed Yucca Mountain facility outside Las Vegas was halted during the Obama administration, and nothing has progressed during the Trump administration.
The two members of the panel from NorthStar, David Pearson and Corey Daniels, both abstained from the vote on the 2015 position. But both voted in favor of creating the study committee. Only panel member Bob Leach of Brattleboro, who worked at Vermont Yankee for many years, voted against both proposals.