Feds OK emergency planning changes at Vermont Yankee

On Dec. 29, 2014, Vermont Yankee went offline and all the fuel was removed from the nuclear reactor on Jan. 12, 2015. 

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VERNON — Federal regulators have approved a downsized emergency response plan for Vermont Yankee.

The new plan, which allows for changes in emergency personnel and procedures, is designed to take effect when all of the idled nuclear plant's radioactive spent fuel is confined inside sealed casks.

That fuel-storage project is scheduled for completion by the end of this year. At that point, the modified emergency plan will reflect "the reduced scope of potential radiological accidents" at the Vernon site, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said.

"The NRC staff has found the revised plan to be acceptable after conducting a safety evaluation," commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

Mike Twomey, external affairs vice president for Entergy Wholesale Commodities, said the company would not comment on the pending changes.

Entergy stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee in December 2014 and permanently removed all fuel from the plant's reactor the following month. But that fuel has remained on site due to the lack of a federal repository for nuclear waste.

Entergy is in the process of moving the fuel from a cooling pool in the plant's reactor building to sealed casks placed on concrete pads nearby.

That fuel transfer currently is on hiatus after a potential cask problem was discovered at a nuclear site in California. But Entergy administrators have said they still expect to finish moving Vermont Yankee's fuel before year's end.

The fuel project is a prerequisite for Entergy's proposed sale of Vermont Yankee to New York-based NorthStar Group Services.

Regardless of whether the sale happens or not, storing fuel in casks will dramatically reduce security requirements at the site. State regulators last year approved construction of a much smaller "protected area" that focuses security on the fuel-storage pads.

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The NRC's approval of a new emergency plan is another variation on that theme.

Last year, in anticipation of the fuel move project, Entergy requested that the NRC consider several emergency-planning changes. They include deletion of emergency procedures and events that are no longer relevant when spent fuel is stored in casks.

For example, the NRC currently considers the risk of the spent fuel's zirconium alloy cladding catching fire the "most severe" radiological accident possible at Vermont Yankee - though federal officials label such a fire "highly unlikely."

After the fuel is sealed in casks, there is no such fire risk, the NRC says.

"As such the number and severity of potential radiological accidents is significantly less than when spent fuel was stored in the (cooling pool)," federal officials wrote. "For these reasons, the potential radiological consequences of accidents possible at VY after all spent fuel is transferred to the (storage pad) are further reduced."

Entergy also has received NRC permission to shuffle its emergency response organization personnel.

Two emergency positions - a technical coordinator and a radiation protection coordinator - will be merged into one, called the resource manager. That person "will assist in assessing the (emergency) event and coordinating required resources, including public information," federal officials said.

Entergy also will shift its emergency director responsibilities to a supervisor with a different title. The NRC says that's "an administrative change that will not impact the timing or performance of existing emergency response duties."

Overall, federal officials wrote, "the NRC staff finds continued reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the event of a radiological emergency at the VY facility."

Mike Faher can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.