The legacy of America's nuclear power plants -- spent fuel and no place to put it
BRATTLEBORO -- After Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant is closed and when the site is finally cleaned up -- perhaps before the end of the next decade -- there will still be a lingering reminder of what existed there since 1972.
As at other nuclear power plant sites around the country, spent nuclear fuel -- or nuclear waste, as it used to be called prior to a successful rebranding campaign waged by the nuclear industry -- might remain in Vernon long after all other reminders of Yankee are gone.
In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released last year a revised waste confidence rule that stated impacts would be small if spent fuel had to be stored at nuclear sites "indefinitely."
Ernest Moniz, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, was in Vermont last week. During a phone interview with the Reformer, Moniz said his department is focused on developing a way to take care of the nation's nuclear waste. However, noted Moniz, DOE needs the go-ahead from Congress.
Senate Bill 1240, which has been in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee since 2013, would establish a new organization to manage nuclear waste, provide a consensual process for siting nuclear waste facilities and ensure adequate funding for managing nuclear waste.
"The legislation has been crafted and is totally consistent with administration policy," said Moniz. "We certainly hope to see it marked up in committee and hopefully passed."
In 1983, the Department of Energy entered into contracts with the operators of the nation's nuclear power plants and agreed to take possession of all nuclear waste produced as a result of their operations. The plan was to move the waste to a centralized storage facility for long-term disposal, and after a siting process, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was chosen. But after $9 billion was invested in the project, the Obama administration pulled the plug due to local opposition, environmental concerns and pressure from Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and democrat from Nevada.
Despite all the money spent on Yucca Mountain, said Moniz, it's not a viable project.
"It certainly did not follow the consent-based process."
In January of 2012, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future, of which Moniz was a member, released a report concluding a repository needed to be established as quickly as possible, but not without local input.
Currently, all the waste produced by the power plants is being stored onsite in either spent nuclear fuel pools or dry casks.
In late August 2013, Entergy announced it would be closing Yankee at the end of 2014 because it was no longer financially viable due to the fact that natural gas has driven down the costs of producing electricity. Late last week, Entergy announced that it would soon be asking for permission to construct an additional dry cask storage facility at Yankee. The pad will be used for the placement of 100-ton dry casks, which will each contain up to 25 tons of spent nuclear fuel once it has cooled down enough to be removed from the fuel pool located inside the plant's reactor building.
The first storage pad at Vermont Yankee was constructed in 2006 and now holds 13 dry casks, with room for 23 more. Each cask contains 68 fuel assemblies, meaning there are now 884 assemblies in dry cask storage. There are another 2,627 spent fuel assemblies in the pool in the reactor building and another 368 assemblies currently in the reactor vessel. The proposed new pad will be similar in size and storage capacity to the one already on site.
Senate Bill 1240 calls for the construction of a pilot facility for the storage of priority waste; one or more additional storage facilities for the storage of nonpriority nuclear waste; and one or more repositories for the permanent disposal of nuclear waste.
The pilot facility would be used "to demonstrate the safe transportation of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste ... (and) to demonstrate the safe storage of spent nuclear and high-level radioactive waste ... at the one or more storage facilities, pending the construction and operation of deep geologic disposal capacity for the permanent disposal of the spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste."
If Congress approves Senate Bill 1240, Moniz said it is hoped a pilot facility can be established early in the 2020s. He said a pilot facility should have been part of the nation's waste storage strategy since 1983.
"We should have been pursuing consolidated storage facilities in parallel with repository development," said Moniz.
The bill also calls for the development of the Nuclear Waste Administration, taking the responsibility for moving and storing the nuclear rods and other high-level waste out of the hands of the Department of Energy. The Nuclear Waste Administration would also be responsible for finding a geological repository.
Moniz said that wherever a spent fuel repository is established, it needs to be established with the consent of the hosting community.
"The consent-based approach is very crucial to us," said Moniz. "The hosting community and the state and the federal government must be aligned if we are given Congressional authority to pursue this work with communities that are interested. We fully expect that there will be multiple interested communities."
The process is intended to allow prospective host communities to decide whether, and on what terms they will host a nuclear waste facility; is open to the public and allows interested persons to be heard in a meaningful way; is flexible and allows decisions to be reviewed and modified in response to new information or new technical, social, or political developments; and is based on sound science and meets public health, safety, and environmental standards.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said it's very important that states are involved in all decisions related to decommissioning, and not just the siting of a spent nuclear fuel storage facility.
Under current rules, public hearings can be held to take input, but in the end, the operator and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are the only entities that have any real say in how a plant is decommissioned, said Sanders.
"We need to make sure that states that are undergoing decommissioning have a real seat at the table so they can participate in the best way to decommission a plant."
Mike Twomey, Entergy's vice president for external affairs, told the Reformer he and other industry executives expect that the federal government will eventually fulfill its obligation to remove the spent fuel from Vermont Yankee and sites around the country.
"Until it does, we are confident that we are storing it safely within the spent fuel pool or in dry cask storage. This has been extensively reviewed by the NRC and we are very confident that both methods provide safe storage until such a time as the federal government removes the spent fuel."
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.