In less than two weeks, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will enter its final shutdown. The Vernon reactor has generated electricity on the banks of the Connecticut River since 1972. It’s also generated public discord, litigation and mistrust. Officials on both sides hope that’s coming to an end, now that the plant is closing. But with decades of cleanup and decommissioning ahead, the saga of Vermont Yankee and the state is far from over.
Visitors to even the least restricted areas at Vermont Yankee must stop at the gatehouse and show their ID.
"Just follow this road down there’ll be a big building on your left and I’ll call your contact and they’ll be out to get you," the guard on duty says.
Our contact is Paul Paradis, the plant's decommissioning director. He's waiting at the public access building, just outside the heavily guarded fence that protects the plant’s reactor and other infrastructure. Paradis has spent many months planning the transition that that begins on Dec. 29. He says the shutdown will take less than an hour, and that that happens every 18 months when the plant closes for refueling.
Timeline for decommissioning
Over the following two weeks, the fuel in the reactor core will be moved into the spent fuel pool. When the transfer is complete and the NRC has been notified, the plant will reduce its workforce from 550 to 316. After that, plant spokesman Martin Cohn says, it’s all new territory.
"This is the first Entergy facility to be decommissioned," Cohn says. "From that point on we are literally writing the book for Entergy."
Paradis says the fuel will spend several years cooling in the spent fuel pool before it’s moved into long-term, dry cask storage elsewhere on the site.
"Right now by the schedule that we have, we will start doing that by 2019," Paradis says. "And we’ll be finished by 2020." After all the fuel is in the casks, the staff will shrink again, to 127 workers, Paradis adds.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows up to 60 years for the decommissioning process. In an agreement with the state last December, Entergy said it doesn’t plan to take that long. The company promised to start the final dismantlement when its decommissioning trust fund – now worth $650 million – reaches the estimated $1.24 billion it will cost to complete the process. Plant officials say that could happen in the late 2030s or 2040s, but they say no one knows for sure.
"I feel pretty good that we’ve got a really solid plan," Paradis says, “And that we have our priorities in order to do this safely and be open and transparent with everybody. I also see us working closely with the state and definitely taking into account any public input."
Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin led the state’s efforts to close the plant. He says Vermont’s relationship with Entergy is better now.
"They’re keeping their word," the governor says. "They’re doing what they need to do, working together with us to get the plant decommissioned as quickly as we can. And we’re working together to take care of the hardworking employees there who we want to keep in Vermont, working and having a bright future."
Shumlin was in Brattleboro recently to award the first grants from the $10 million Entergy has promised in $2 million increments over five years. The money will help Windham County bounce back from the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs at Vermont Yankee and other economic benefits from the plant.
A fraught history
Entergy and Vermont have had a troubled history. The Louisiana-based energy giant bought Vermont Yankee in 2002 from its original owners, a group of utilities led by Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service. For the sale to go through, Entergy needed the approval of state’s utility-regulating Public Service Board. After lengthy deliberation the board agreed that Entergy could run the plant for up to 10 years. But that the company had to seek a new state permit to operate beyond 2012.
Vermont Law School professor Michael Dworkin, who chaired the panel at the time, says Entergy also signed a 10-year indexed, fixed-price power contract with Vermont.
"And over the course of that decade it turned out to be cheaper than owning the plant would have been," Dworkin says.
Yankee had always had its share of anti-nuclear protesters. But opposition grew as recurring mishaps led to concerns that Entergy was cutting corners and couldn’t be trusted. A faulty valve caused an unplanned shutdown. A Cooling tower collapsed. In 2010, the state learned that radioactive tritium was leaking from buried pipes, after a plant official had testified that no such pipes existed.
By then Entergy was seeking approval to run for another 20 years. And hundreds of protestors from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were calling for the plant to close.
Shortly after the tritium discovery, the Vermont Senate – which in 2006 had granted itself the power to decide Entergy’s fate – rejected the company’s request. The decision was overturned in a federal lawsuit filed by Entergy.
Shortly afterward, Entergy announced its plans to close. The company said the plant wasn’t profitable. Cheap natural gas had lowered prices and new efficiencies had reduced the demand for electricity, while regulatory requirements raised the cost of doing business. Across the country other nuclear power plants have closed for similar reasons.
Vernon representative Mike Hebert says Entergy’s run-ins with the legislature didn’t inspire trust.
"Repeated taxes, the clean energy fund, you had the assessment on dry cask storage. So from the plant’s point of view every time the legislature met it did something costly and punitive to the plant," Hebert says.
Storing radioactive waste
For 40 years Entergy has been Vernon’s biggest taxpayer, but that’s about to change. Town officials have been discussing possible new uses for the Yankee property, including a gas-fired power plant that would utilize a high voltage electrical substation on the site. The substation is part of the statewide transmission infrastructure managed by the Vermont Electric Power Company. VELCO vice president Kerrick Johnson says a gas generator might be a good idea, except for the radioactive waste stored on the site.
"There are significant disadvantage when you’re dealing with nuclear waste," Johnson says. "What you can do there consistent with maintaining adequate protection – that’s a challenge."
Anti-nuclear activist Deb Katz agrees.
"Any illusion that that site is going to be used for anything else, it’s not real at this point," she says. "As long as the high-level waste is there, it can’t be used for anything.”
Katz, who lives in Western Massachusetts, has been involved in two nuclear plant cleanups. She says Vermont has done better than other states in negotiating with a closing nuclear facility. She applauds the formation of a citizens decommissioning advisory group that includes plant executives. She also agrees that the fuel should be moved as quickly as possible from the fuel pool into safer dry cask storage.
But she says that unless the Department of Energy can make good on its longstanding promise to provide a permanent high-level nuclear waste site, the state will be dealing with Vermont Yankee’s legacy for a very long time.