VERNON — All of Vermont Yankee's radioactive spent fuel is now stored in sealed casks, marking the end of a closely watched, $143 million project at the Vernon site.
The project's completion, which Entergy announced Thursday, is a major milestone for the idled nuclear plant for two reasons: It clears the way for a potential sale, and it sets the stage for another round of job reductions.
Entergy also is now free to drastically reduce the size of Vermont Yankee's high-security "protected area." In a related development, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday released its approval of that security change.
Vermont Yankee administrators have provided "reasonable assurance that adequate protective measures can and will be taken in the occurrence of a physical security contingency at the site," federal regulators wrote.
After 42 years of operation, Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014. The company has taken steps to prepare the plant for decommissioning but also is trying to sell the site to New York-based NorthStar Group Services, which has proposed an [accelerated cleanup] project that could be finished by 2030 or earlier.
The NorthStar sale is subject to approvals from both the state Public Utility Commission and the NRC. Federal officials are expected to decide on the matter in the third quarter of this year, and state regulators have said they'll issue a ruling sometime after that.
The proposed sale also was dependent on Entergy moving all of Vermont Yankee's spent fuel from a cooling pool into 58 "dry casks" stored on two concrete pads. That project got underway last year and has proceeded slowly, with crews loading about one cask per week.
The fuel transfer had some community members concerned about the potential for accidents. Those concerns were heightened by the fact that Vernon Elementary School sits across the road from Vermont Yankee.
But federal regulators say they found no issues during the project, which was handled by Florida-based Holtec International under Entergy's supervision.
"We followed the loading campaign through on-site inspections, in-office reviews and frequent status calls with the company," NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. "We did not identify any safety concerns during these activities."
Entergy also was able to get the fuel move finished well ahead of schedule. The project had been slated for completion at year's end, and the company a few months ago said the project was on track for an earlier finish in September.
Instead, the transfer ended on the first day of August - despite the fact that there was a nearly two-month delay earlier this year due to issues with Holtec casks at another nuclear site.
"As for any project of this scope, contingencies were included in the schedule," said Joe Lynch, Entergy's senior government affairs manager for decommissioning. "Vermont Yankee employees and Holtec, the turnkey contractor, worked closely to achieve the cask placement on the (spent fuel) pad on this timeline."
Vermont Energy Partnership, a pro-Vermont Yankee organization, on Thursday issued a statement noting that, originally, the fuel move wasn't supposed to have been completed until 2020.
"By completing the job within budget and ahead of schedule by two years, the plant continues to demonstrate its commitment to going above and beyond for Vernon and Windham County as it has done for over four decades," said Guy Page, a partnership spokesman.
The accelerated schedule, however, didn't reduce costs. Lynch said the project "was completed within the projected budget of approximately $143 million."
Nevertheless, Entergy soon will be spending less on payroll due to completion of the fuel move.
Vermont Yankee employed about 550 people at the time of shutdown. The workforce has been steadily reduced since then, starting with a major layoff in January 2015 when all fuel was removed from the plant's reactor.
In April, an Entergy spokesperson said there were about 60 staffers remaining at Vermont Yankee, not counting contracted security personnel. That number can be reduced to just 10 or 15 now that the spent fuel project is over.
The timeline for those layoffs has not changed, even though the fuel project finished early. On Thursday, Lynch said Vermont Yankee administrators still expect to make the next workforce reduction in October.
A different kind of downsizing also is in the works at Vermont Yankee.
Soon, the plant's protected area will shrink from more than 10 acres to just 1.3 acres. While restrictions will remain in place limiting public access to the plant property, the smaller protected area will allow administrators to focus their most robust security on the spent fuel storage area and a new central alarm station.
The state Public Utility Commission approved that security change last year. The NRC now has also signed off, with officials noting that the change couldn't take effect until all fuel had been stored in casks.
The security shift is expected to save Entergy about $1.2 million monthly.
But Vermont Yankee's spent fuel isn't going anywhere anytime soon. That's because the federal government has failed to meet its statutory obligation to develop a national disposal site for spent nuclear fuel.
There are some proposed solutions to that problem, including the possibility of temporary storage in the southwestern United States and/or the revival of an effort to establish a permanent nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
But both of those options are controversial, and it's not clear whether either will ever receive federal approval.