BRATTLEBORO—Themes of trust and transparency and questions of “What’s next?” echoed through the inaugural meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (NDCAP).
Many on the panel and in the audience have followed every detail of life of the 42-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor in Vernon.
Few, however, have trod the new soil of decommissioning a reactor, storing spent fuel, or preparing a small community or regional economy for the loss of a large, high-paying, employer.
Last summer, plant owner Entergy Corp. announced it would close VY at the end of 2014 for financial reasons. In September, the reactor entered a “coast-down” period where it will produce less and less energy until the plant exhausts its fuel.
NDCAP, a 19-member panel focused on VY’s decommissioning, formed through an agreement between the state and Entergy. The panel replaces the Vermont State Nuclear Advisory Panel (VSNAP) and includes citizens, lawmakers, Entergy personnel, and state officials from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
The Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) oversees NDCAP. At their Sept. 25 meeting, held in the Multipurpose Room at Brattleboro Union High School, 17 of the 19 members attended.
The meeting centered on introductions and an overview of the panel’s focus going into 2015.
NDCAP will receive and review reports related to what is expected in what will be a decades-long decommissioning process.
Two pending reports include Entergy’s Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) and site assessment report, said Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department.
NDCAP wants to receive the two reports before it determines site standards for decommissioning, Recchia said.
The state has posted nuclear engineer Anthony R. Leshinskie as the decommissioning coordinator at VY, Recchia said.
“We are on site at the moment, and we will be, through the closure and defueling of the reactor,” Recchia said.
Trust and transparency
Catherine Morris, a senior mediator with CBI: Consensus Building Institute, remarked in a presentation to the NDCAP that strong opinions on all sides have taken a toll on the relationship between Entergy and the state.
Referring to the state, community, and Entergy’s relationship, Morris said that past events and decisions have created “scar tissue for everybody.”
DPS hired CBI to compile a situation assessment. That report, submitted to the department in August, highlights the concerns and ideas of various VY stakeholders. The goal of the report is to take the pulse of the community involved with every aspect of VY and develop methods for community engagement.
CBI interviewed 26 stakeholders for the report: four from Entergy, five from environmental organizations, six in local or regional government, four state agency officials, four legislators, and three others.
CBI noted in its findings that for NDCAP to have public credibility, “transparency is key.”
“An important role of the [NDCAP] is to build trust and credibility among stakeholders and the public, which will require a transparent and open process that makes information easily accessible, provides adequate opportunities for input, and documents how the input has been taken into account in recommendations,” the report reads in part.
Panel member Jim Matteau took up the point about rebuilding the public’s trust: “I feel very strongly that the burden of proof is on us, and I think the public is justifiably skeptical.”
Morris added that those interviewed were clear in their concerns about the decommissioning’s schedule and costs.
People also discussed the long-term storage of the spent fuel, Morris said. Those interviewed said they wanted the spent rods stored in the spent fuel pool moved to dry cask storage as soon as possible.
Decommissioning and staffing levels
Entergy representatives outlined VY’s decommissioning process.
According to T. Michael Twomey, Entergy Wholesale Commodities’ vice president of external affairs, and Christopher Wamser, VY site vice-president the plant is on track to cease operations at the end of this year.
“We are a very willing participants in this process,” Twomey said of the NDCAP.
He said Entergy’s participation in the panel marks “a watershed” moment.
Twomey said that Entergy anticipates completing the PASDAR within the month, well ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.
Twomey and Wamser agreed the plant will pass through three general phases between now and 2021 and beyond: operation, dormancy, and SAFSTORE.
One of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s sanctioned methods for decommissioning a nuclear plant, SAFSTORE allows a plant to be dormant for up to 60 years before it is disassembled. It would also allow the plant’s decommissioning fund to accrue more interest over that time.
They said that staffing levels at the plant will step down between 2015 and 2020.
Twomey and Wamser said that VY employs approximately 550 at the site. That number will drop to roughly 316 in 2015.
When the spent fuel is sufficiently cool by mid-2016, and some is moved to dry cask storage, staffing will drop to an estimated 127. The number of onsite personnel will fall to 24 to 58 at the beginning of 2020, the men said.
Entergy representatives told NDCAP members that the company has met its financial obligations for this year as specified in its agreement with the state. These committments include depositing $10 million into a site restoration fund, $5.2 million into a clean energy fund, and $2 million with the Windham County Economic Development Program.
Twomey said that Entergy is waiting for the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) before constructing a second pad to hold additional dry casks.
The CPG process saw delays because Entergy needed to conduct additional soil moisture tests, Twomey added.
Twomey said $175,000 in annual financial contributions to local nonprofit organizations will phase out as VY stops generating revenue.
He said Entergy is looking to reduce costs related to VY. Once the plant ceases operation, the decommissioning fund will become the plant’s source of money.
Recchia said that Entergy has agreed that the company will start working to restore the site within 120 days of the decommissioning fund reaching sufficient money to complete site restoration.
Safety standards and warmed fish?
Longtime VY watchers from both sides of the debate filled the audience. Most posed questions to Twomey and Wamser.
One audience member asked about “the overloaded” spent fuel pool and Entergy’s plan to move fuel rods to dry casks.
The spent fuel pool is cooled with water and located above the reactor. Some anti-nuclear activists have said that VY holds more fuel than it was designed for and poses a hazard.
“There’s certainly not an overload,” Twomey said.
He placed the issue at the feet of the U.S. Department of Energy, which has yet to designate a national spent-fuel repository, and granted that VY’s pool contains more fuel “than expected.”
“It will eventually be in dry cask storage,” he said.
Clay Turnbull of the New England Coalition (NEC) said that NDCAP needs to develop a clear vision that can provide long-term guidance for the site.
He asked, “What level of ‘clean’ does the state expect? Brownfield? Greenfield? Industrial use? We need to have an end vision of what needs to be there.”
When asked whether VY would run its cooling towers while spent fuel remains in the pool, or pump water directly from the Connecticut River, Twomey no. He cited two reasons:
Once the plant ceases operation, he said, it will require minimal water to keep the pool cool. He added the PSB concluded the plant’s thermal discharge has “no adverse impact on the river.”
At that statement, state Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, reacted sharply.
“It’s not true the board did not find any impact,” said Deen, who is a NDCAP member and Connecticut River Watershed Council steward.
According to Deen, the board decided that the plant’s imminent closure makes it a unique case, and as such agreed to let it continue discharging into the river.
NDCAP members elected Recchia and Chris Campany as their chairman and vice chairman, respectively. Campany is executive director of the Windham Regional Commission. Their terms run through 2014.
The panel next meets Oct. 30, Nov. 20, and Dec. 18.