Feds: Vermont Yankee fuel move done safely

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VERNON — Federal regulators have issued a final seal of approval for Vermont Yankee's $143 million fuel move project.

A new inspection report says Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors came up with "no findings of safety significance" after conducting observations, interviews and document reviews in connection with the 14-month transfer of the plant's radioactive spent fuel into sealed casks.

The report represents the "final assessment" of the now-finished fuel move. But NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said inspectors will be keeping watch on the spent fuel's new home on two concrete pads at the Vernon site.

"We will continue to perform periodic inspections of the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, both in terms of maintenance of the dry casks and security," Sheehan said. "With respect to the larger site, we will continue to inspect decommissioning activities on an ongoing basis."

Plant owner Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014 and now is looking to sell the plant NorthStar Group Services. The sale, which still is under review by the Vermont Public Utility Commission and the NRC, could clear the way for an accelerated decommissioning project proposed by New York-based NorthStar.

One precondition of the sale was Entergy moving all of Vermont Yankee's spent fuel from a cooling pool into more stable, longer-term storage in so-called "dry casks."

The fuel transfer began in June 2017 and wrapped up at the end of July of this year. Entergy finished the project of schedule in spite of a nearly two-month precautionary delay earlier this year due to issues with similar casks at a different nuclear plant.

There had been concerns aired at public meetings about the safety of moving radioactive material, especially with Vernon Elementary School situated near the plant. But NRC officials say they found no deficiencies.

The federal inspection included on-site visits in April, June and July. Inspectors looked at a variety of procedures including cask receipt and inspection; fuel loading; cask transport to a storage pad; and radiation-protection monitoring.

Federal officials also observed crews loading a damaged spent fuel bundle into specially designed containers. Sheehan said it is "not uncommon for casks to be licensed to hold damaged fuel," and he said the casks used at Vermont Yankee are licensed to hold undamaged or damaged fuel.

"The only difference is that the fuel is first inserted into a damaged fuel canister and then the canister is placed in the cask at locations specified in the license," Sheehan said.

Now that Vermont Yankee's fuel has been moved to cask storage, it will stay on site for the time being — and possibly for the long term. That's because the federal government has not yet met its statutory obligation to develop a national repository for spent nuclear fuel.

At a recent meeting in Brattleboro, federal Department of Energy officials outlined possible solutions for short- and long-term national storage but could make no promises as to when Vermont Yankee's spent fuel might leave Vernon.

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