Vermont Yankee fuel storage debated
BRATTLEBORO >> Five months after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant stopped producing power, debate about the site's future has turned to a 76-foot-by-93-foot concrete slab that doesn't yet exist.
That pad eventually will host dry casks containing some of the Vernon plant's spent nuclear fuel. But the pad's location, security and cost have become matters of intense scrutiny that only will increase as state officials consider granting permission for its construction.
Administrators with plant owner Entergy Corp. contend they're proceeding in the most-responsible manner possible, both financially — by not dipping into the site's decommissioning trust fund — and logistically, by carefully plotting the fuel pad's location and design.
"We have expert, professional engineers who designed the pad," said Mike Twomey, Entergy external affairs vice president. "We've worked with industry-leading experts in procuring the casks, and it's all under the supervision and oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We are very confident in the safety and security of those dry cask canisters and our use of those, and our placement of those on the site."
Others are not so confident, citing concerns about the storage system's safety. Deb Katz, executive director of the Shelburne Falls, Mass.-based Citizens Awareness Network, argues that there is no suitable site at the Yankee property for high-level waste while also acknowledging that there is currently no other place to take that waste due to the lack of a federal storage facility.
"This is part of the conflict. You're always trying to choose between bad options," Katz said. "It's a cascading situation of bad circumstances."
Entergy has pledged to move all of Vermont Yankee's fuel from a spent-fuel pool to more-stable, dry cask storage by the end of 2020. The property already has one pad holding dry casks, but Entergy needs to build another to accomplish that goal.
At Thursday night's meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Brattleboro, Entergy laid out its detailed plans for spent fuel storage at the plant site along the Connecticut River:
— There are 13 dry casks already loaded with spent fuel; an additional 45 casks will be needed.
— The current spent fuel pad can hold 36 casks; the new pad will have a capacity of 25.
— The need for more casks is clear: The plant's spent fuel pool now holds 2,996 fuel assemblies, and there are just 884 assemblies in dry storage at the moment.
Entergy wants to build a second spent fuel pad right next to the current pad, a site that's currently occupied by a warehouse that will be demolished. Plans also call for installation of a new, 200 kilowatt diesel generator.
First, though, Entergy needs the Vermont Public Service Board to issue a certificate of public good for the second pad. Entergy is counting on approval by May 2016, with Twomey warning that "delays in obtaining the CPG could very well affect the schedule for movement of spent fuel."
Delays also could lead to drastically increased costs for the project. Currently, Entergy plans to draw on a $145 million line of credit to cover costs associated with moving spent fuel into dry storage, a decision that allows the plant's decommissioning trust fund to not bear that burden.
The trust fund stood at $654.4 million as of April 30, and an estimated $1.2 billion is needed for Yankee decommissioning. So any expenditure from the trust fund is a matter of debate, as it has the potential for further delaying the completion of decommissioning work.
However, if the process of transferring the plant's spent fuel extends beyond 2020, Entergy projects that it will incur $1.7 million per month in additional costs associated with manpower, security and operating spent-fuel pools. And Twomey said that would impact the decommissioning trust fund.
"Once we get the fuel – all of it – out of the pool and into the casks, we can reduce our costs by $1.7 million a month because we don't have to maintain the pool, we don't have to have the same level of staffing for the plant," Twomey said. "So that's an opportunity to avoid costs. The key point for people to understand is that, the sooner we stop incurring those costs, we won't have to take money out of the decommissioning trust fund to cover those costs."
None of that changes the fact that the state's regulatory review for the second spent fuel pad is expected to extend into spring 2016. There will be opportunities for public comment, including a public hearing scheduled by the Public Service Board for 7 p.m. June 4 at Vernon Elementary School's cafeteria.
"We're not talking about permitting a strip mall or a small solar array," said David Mears, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. "We're talking about spent nuclear fuel. So I, for one, am appreciative of the fact that we'll have a deliberative, thoughtful process to consider this, and I think that the public deserves no less."
Mears said his department will be among the active participants in that process, looking at issues such as flooding, erosion and management of solid waste and storm water.
"For each of those areas ... there are likely to be some other, additional regulatory decisions or permits required in addition to whatever decision the Public Service Board makes," Mears said.
The safety of dry-cask storage is a key question. At the last Citizens Advisory Panel meeting, an industry expert testified about the casks' ability to withstand severe structural tests and simulated attacks.
Joe Lynch, Entergy's government affairs manager at Yankee, said the company considered underground fuel storage but ruled it out due to space constraints. The site for the second fuel pad was selected in part "because of enhancements to our security plan" as well as the availability of existing infrastructure, Lynch said.
Entergy's application for a CPG was delayed in part due to the need for additional soil-analysis work. "We have completed all that work, and the new location poses no concerns both for seismic issues or for soil-interaction issues," Lynch said.
Additionally, the company used the same earthquake and flooding parameters that were used for the first fuel pad. The flooding scenario ponders the effects of a thousand-year deluge, but some scoffed at the effectiveness of that measurement.
"A thousand-year flood line is a figment of someone's imagination, but they were willing to sign their name to it, and that has given it some kind of credence," said David Deen, a state legislator, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council and a member of the decommissioning panel. "We don't know what a thousand-year flood looks like."
Katz was among others raising concerns. For instance, she does not believe students should be at nearby Vernon Elementary School when workers are transferring spent fuel from the pool to the casks.
"Entergy could be doing a great job, and they still could have an accident," Katz said in an interview after the decommissioning panel meeting.
She and other meeting attendees also called attention to a wooden fence situated at the site's first spent fuel pad. An earthen barrier, Katz argued, would better protect the site and also shield bystanders from radiation.
Entergy says it has no plans for such a berm. And Twomey balked at any suggestion that the plant's spent fuel is protected by a wooden fence.
"I can assure you of this: That fence is not part of our safety or security profile," Twomey said. "It was only an aesthetic/visual barrier. We have robust security to protect those casks."
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