VY casks

Casks of high-level nuclear waste sit on an independent spent fuel storage installation at Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon.

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BRATTLEBORO — Officials from the firm that made the steel and concrete casks that hold radioactive nuclear waste from the Vermont Yankee power plant, told a panel this week that no loaded canister had ever leaked radiation.

A subcommittee of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel had invited the Holtec International officials to address the group on Monday, as it is looking into long-term issues surrounding the waste, which is being stored at the Vernon site indefinitely.

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, which ceased operation in December 2014, is being dismantled and cleaned up by NorthStar Group Services, its owner. The former owner, Entergy Nuclear, first started using Holtec casks back in 2008, when Entergy transferred Yankee’s oldest fuel into the casks, as at that time it needed additional storage space in Yankee’s spent fuel pool.

In 2008, the company loaded 13 Holtec casks, and then from 2016 to 2018, after the plant permanently shut down, it loaded 45 additional casks with all of the site’s spent nuclear fuel. All the casks are now in a guarded facility, just north of the reactor building at Yankee.

Holtec executives Joy Russell and Kimberly Manzione appeared via video link to the subcommittee, and said that while the casks were originally licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 years, re-licensing of the casks is expected, and would extend the life 40 more years.

Russell said the combination interior steel canister and exterior concrete shell had never leaked radiation.

“No loaded canister has ever leaked,” she said.

“No leakage is credible,” added Manzione, in such a pressurized vessel.

Holtec and NorthStar’s business partner are seeking federal approval to build separate storage facilities for the high-level radioactive waste — Holtec in New Mexico and NorthStar in West Texas — a move that some say is not allowed under federal law. Under their plan, nuclear waste, such as that stored in Vernon, would be moved — in Vermont’s case to the West Texas facility — and stored there until the federal Department of Energy finally builds a national facility.

“We don’t want New Mexico to be the final place,” Russell said. Instead, she said, the company wants to build “a temporary interim storage for the nation.”

Committee members and several members from anti-nuclear organizations had questions for the two Holtec executives, and whether federal law applied to their company if they were just transferring waste at their closed nuclear power plants to their own facility.

Any stored fuel would be moved out of its current cask into a transfer cask, Russell said, and Holtec already has manufactured 40 of those kinds of casks. The inner, stainless steel cask, which is welded shut and which contains the radioactive fuel assemblies, is transferred into a different “overpack” for the trip, Russell said.

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“These casks are extremely robust,” she said.

Russell acknowledged that the state of New Mexico has vowed to fight the facility, and that Holtec would need state permits to build and operate such a facility.

Interestingly, Holtec officials said the war in Ukraine had delayed a Holtec project to transfer spent fuel from other nuclear power plants to the central storage facility at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst commercial nuclear accident.

“Everything is on hold because of the war,” Russell said.

The approach Russell said the company is taking is that states and local communities “could get their land back” where the waste is currently stored.

Corey Daniels, one of NorthStar’s representatives on the committee, said the waste storage facility at Vernon is monitored for leaking and heat, but “in reality there’s nothing to do.”

The fuel in the giant canisters are passively cooled, he said. He said the temperature of the fuel is monitored remotely on a monthly basis.

“It’s pretty boring data, and boring is good,” he said.

Daniels said that while NorthStar had not started the re-licensing process for its canisters, he expected it would shortly. The paperwork, he said, was in process, since the earlier canisters’ license expires in 2028.

Lissa Weinmann, the chairwoman of the subcommittee, asked who held liability if there was a problem.

Holtec holds the license to the casks, Daniels said, while NorthStar is the licensed user.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.