VERNON — The owner of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has received approval from federal regulators for a more relaxed time schedule for shipping low-level radioactive waste to Texas because the company has run into weeks-long delays.
NorthStar Nuclear Decommissioning Co. asked for permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an exemption from the requirement that the waste get to the Texas waste disposal facility within 20 days since it had several shipments that exceeded federal requirements.
The exemption was necessary because the waste was often put on rail sidings for days at a time to wait to resume its trip to west Texas.
According to a letter NorthStar wrote to federal regulators, two shipments last year were delayed for 24 and 22 days during their trip to the Waste Control Specialists disposal facility in Andrews, Texas.
The low-level waste left Vernon on Aug. 20, 2019 and Sept. 4, 2019, but didn't get to Texas for almost three additional weeks. In one case, a shipment that was supposed to take 20 days took 59 days.
Federal regulations required that NorthStar launch an investigation into the delays. "At no time were the shipments lost in an unknown location," wrote NorthStar's Corey Daniels, the waste control manager at Vermont Yankee, in the company's formal request to the NRC. The low-level waste is shipped on various carriers, such as New England Central Railroad, CSX, Union Pacific, and Texas & New Mexico Railway, according to Daniels' letter to the NRC.
NorthStar is using rail to ship most of the low-level waste from the demolition and clean up of Vermont Yankee, rather than trucks, because it considers it safer, and produces less wear and tear on the country's roads. The low-level waste is often shielded with very heavy materials in preparation for shipping.
"NRC regulations also recognize the reality that the twenty-day notification standard is not always workable as 'one-size-fits-all.' In appropriate cases such as this one, the NRC can extend the receipt acknowledgment timeline because NorthStar has shown that we use careful and thorough tracking procedures throughout the process to ensure that we know the whereabouts of shipments at all times," NorthStar CEO Scott State wrote in an email on Monday.
He said that NorthStar chose to ship low-level radioactive waste from the Vermont Yankee decommissioning project by rail for processing and disposal in approved repositories, primarily the Waste Control Specialists facility in Andrews, Texas.
"Shipping low-level waste by rail rather than by truck, whenever possible, avoids traffic and wear and tear on local roads. NorthStar's experience at Vermont Yankee, which is consistent with the experience at other decommissioning plants, shows that rail and combined rail and truck shipments take longer to reach their destination than shipments by truck alone. That is why we sought and received a reasonable extension on reporting acknowledgement of shipments within 45 days instead of 20," State added.
The decommissioning of Vermont Yankee is expected to be completed by 2030, according to the NRC.
In granting the exemption, the NRC said such a waiver was within federal law, and it noted that at all times NorthStar knew where the waste was located on its trip.
"Inherent to the decommissioning process, large volumes of low-level radioactive waste are generated and require disposal. Experience with waste shipment from NY and other decommissioning power reactor sites indicates that rail or mixed-mode transportation time to waste disposal facilities has, in several instances, exceeded the 20-day receipt of notification requirement," the NRC wrote in its decision.
Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC, said NorthStar's request had been deemed "acceptable."
"We have determined a 45-day window - versus the previous 20-day window - is acceptable before the company has to investigate, trace and report on the status of a low-level radioactive waste shipment from Vermont Yankee to a disposal facility," Sheehan said via an email.
"Because of the oversight and monitoring of radioactive waste shipments throughout the entire journey from VY to the disposal site, it is unlikely that a shipment could be lost, misdirected or diverted without the knowledge of the carrier or NorthStar NDC," he added.
He said the 45-day window will maintain a "reasonable upper limit" if a breakdown of the normal tracking systems were to occur. He said that NorthStar "never lost track of the shipments."
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