Feds make no promises on Vermont Yankee fuel

REFORMER FILE PHOTOSpent fuel rod storage containers at the Entergy Vermont Yankee power plant in Vernon.

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BRATTLEBORO — A meeting last week brought together a variety of people with an interest in Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel — congressional staffers, state officials, regional activists and an administrator from the U.S. Department of Energy.

But after a few hours of discussion, the end result was more uncertainty.

Despite several legislative initiatives in the works, no one can say how long the radioactive material will remain in Vernon or where it might go afterward. Even the Energy Department, which is supposed to take custody of the fuel, can't provide a clear timeline.

Though the federal government has undertaken preliminary planning, "we do not know when the fuel will be picked up from Vermont Yankee," said Erica Bickford, a transportation program manager from the Energy Department.

All of the fuel that Vermont Yankee used in 42 years of operation remains in Vernon, though the plant ceased power production at the end of 2014. Plant owner Entergy is transferring the fuel from a cooling pool to more secure storage in sealed casks, a project that's expected to be finished this year.

From there, the future of the fuel is anybody's guess. That's because the federal government has not fulfilled its statutory obligation to create a national repository for spent fuel, which is currently stored at nuclear sites around the country.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., recently supported a bill that could revive the stalled Yucca Mountain project to provide a permanent home for high-level nuclear waste in Nevada. The bill - H.R.3053 - also calls for interim storage at some other centralized site while a permanent repository is being developed.

Two companies that are linked to a possible accelerated decommissioning project at Vermont Yankee have proposed an interim fuel-storage site in Texas.

But the notion of interim nuclear waste storage is controversial. At a June 28 meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Brattleboro, staffers for U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wouldn't commit their bosses to supporting it.

Haley Pero, who was representing Sanders, said her boss has "deep reservations" about long-term nuclear waste storage, "wherever it is." And Tom Berry, who works for Leahy, said Vermont's senior senator backs creation of a national repository "as soon as it can be responsibly accomplished."

As for interim storage, "the devil on this sort of thing is definitely in the details," Berry said.

The legislative staffers were more supportive of another bill - H.R.3929 - that proposes to compensate communities based on the amount of spent fuel they're stuck with.

Welch helped introduce that bill last year. George Twigg, who is Welch's state director, told the advisory panel that the legislation could mean the federal government would send $10 million per year to Vernon "in compensation for the fact that the federal government has not lived up to its end of the bargain for removing this waste from the host community."

There is skepticism about whether the initiative will move forward. The bill has lain dormant in committee without a hearing since its introduction last October, and Twigg said "I would not expect anything to happen with it in this Congress, before the end of the year."

Host-community payment is a "new concept," Twigg said, and may take time to gain traction in Congress. There's also the fact that lawmakers have not clearly identified a funding source for the government's proposed payments.

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But Twigg expressed cautious optimism that the bill could find more support.

As additional nuclear plants shut down, that could "broaden the constituency for the legislation," Twigg said. "So my hope would be that it will increase over time because it won't just be Vermont but more communities saying, 'Hey, as long as this waste is going to sit here, we should be compensated.'"

The government wouldn't have to pay host communities if it could remove spent nuclear fuel. But Bickford didn't have much good news on that front.

Bickford detailed work that the Energy Department has been doing to lay the groundwork for moving spent fuel out of sites like Vermont Yankee. Those include conducting tests; planning routes; commissioning specially designed railcars; and visiting nuclear sites to determine how best to pick up fuel.

Department officials visited Vermont Yankee in 2016 and determined that rail, not trucks, will be the best fuel-transportation method there. Last week, Bickford said Vermont Yankee is a "very well-connected site" in terms of rail access.

But there's no place to take fuel at this point. And, while there is a national Nuclear Waste Fund containing about $39 billion for spent fuel disposal, there's no money allocated for any transportation projects at this point, Bickford said.

Even when there is a clear destination and funding allocations, Bickford said the department couldn't immediately begin moving fuel to a storage site.

"The timeline is a seven-year timeline," she said. "So we think that, from the time we get the go-ahead it will take us on the order of seven years to be ready to conduct that first transport."

It's also not clear what type of priority Vermont Yankee's spent fuel would receive once the federal government begins moving nuclear waste.

Federal officials have contemplated moving the oldest fuel first, but that could involve picking up waste at multiple sites around the country. "It's not a very efficient way to be removing fuel from sites," Bickford said.

"The actual queue is going to be up to contract negotiations between the department and the (plant owner) and those negotiations have not yet taken place," she added.

Bickford also told the advisory panel that the department's proposed timeline for moving fuel could be altered by issues like "unforeseen technical challenges," supply problems or litigation.

No matter what fuel solution the government eventually pursues, there's bound to be organized opposition. Even in New England, some are concerned about the consequences of sending nuclear waste to the western U.S.

Chris Williams, a Hancock resident who works with groups including the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network, said Yucca Mountain is not a scientifically sound solution. He's no fan of interim storage, either.

"I, like everybody else, want that waste out of Vermont," Williams said. "But I don't want to send it someplace where it's going to create a problem down the line - a big problem."