Despite State's Hopes, Decommissioning Yankee Could Take Decades

Aug 29, 2013

The news that Vermont Yankee will close next year has state and local officials focused on what’s next. They’d like the site in Vernon to be used for a power plant or for industrial development.

But experts say decommissioning the Entergy Vermont Yankee nuclear plant will take at least a decade, despite the state’s hopes for a faster timetable.

When Entergy executives announced that Yankee would be shutdown next year, they indicated the site in Vernon could be in limbo for many years. Jeff Forbes is chief nuclear officer for Entergy.

“Full decommissioning is a long process and could take decades,” he said. “Once the plant is shutdown, workers will de-fuel the reactor and place the plant in ‘Safstor’, which is an NRC approved process in which the facility is maintained and monitored in a safe condition and the decontamination and dismantling occurs later.”

Under the “Safstor” option, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows operators to mothball a plant for up to 60 years.

That option is not acceptable for the Shumlin Administration or for development officials in Windham County. Chris Campany is executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, which promotes planning and orderly economic development in southeastern Vermont.

The regional commission has been neutral about Yankee’s continued operation. But Campany said a quick clean-up of the site is essential for the economic health of the region. He says Yankee’s decommissioning fund – now at about $580 million – is not enough to pay for the full cost of clean up. So the Windham Commission wants the Public Service Board to require Yankee and its corporate parents to put more money into the fund.

“Basically what we’re suggesting is that the parent company with the deep pockets should be held responsible for the decommissioning,” he said. “Rather than wait for the decommissioning fund to be built up, use funds that they have right now to pay for the immediate decommissioning of the plant once it closes.”

The Yankee site is served by an upgraded transmission switchyard that could serve another power plant or industry. But Campany said a major obstacle for redeveloping the area is the spent nuclear fuel that’s stored on-site in large steel and concrete casks. He said Entergy agreed when it bought the plant in 2002 to use their commercial best efforts to move the spent nuclear fuel out of Vermont. 

“We believe the Public Service Board should hold them to that requirement,” he said. “There are examples where operators have moved spent fuel from one facility to another.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has oversight over decommissioning. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the process at Yankee could take at least 10 years. He pointed to the lengthy decommissioning periods for other New England reactors.

“Even under kind of the most efficient time frames, you’re still talking about at least a decade,” he said. “Maine Yankee shutdown in ’96, the work there wasn’t completed until spring of 2005. Connecticut Yankee shutdown in May ’98, the work wasn’t completed until November 2007.”

Ray Shadis is a technical adviser with the New England Coalition, which has worked to close Vermont Yankee. Shadis lives in Maine and was involved in the Maine Yankee shutdown and decommissioning. He said decommissioning should not be delayed at Vermont Yankee.

“Our concern, our safety and radiological concern with Safstor is that this plant already has a history of leaks,” he said, referring to leaking underground pipes at Vermont Yankee.

The future of Yankee’s Vernon site will likely come up in the Legislature next year. East Montpelier Democrat Tony Klein chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He says lawmakers may consider a tax on spent fuel. But he said the question of the decommissioning timetable is best left for Vermont’s congressional delegation to work out with the NRC.

“Because it’s really the NRC that’s in control of the process. So we have to make a very strong case that says 60, 70, 30 years is not acceptable,” he said. “It’s not acceptable to anybody.”

Entergy has asked the Public Service Board for permission to operate until the end of next year. The company says it does not need state approval to continue to store waste on site. The state has asked for 30 days to respond.