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Feds focus on railroads for moving nuke fuel

U.S. Department of Energy team evaluates county transportation infrastructure

VERNON—When it’s time to remove spent nuclear fuel from Vermont Yankee, it appears likely that will happen via rail — not trucks.

That was the takeaway last week for local officials and for plant administrators after meeting with a visiting team from the Department of Energy. That team was in town to begin planning for the eventual transport of 3,880 radioactive fuel assemblies stored at the Vernon plant.

There still is no national, permanent storage site for that material, meaning federal officials can’t offer a firm schedule for a fuel move. But those who sat down with Department of Energy representatives say they now know more about what to expect when it happens.

“They said rail is the way to go for us,” said Joe Lynch, Entergy Vermont Yankee government affairs manager.

“They were very educational — very informative,” Lynch said of the energy department team. “They bring a lot of expertise to this.”

Waiting on a storage facility

Vermont Yankee stopped producing power in December 2014, and its reactor was permanently defueled the following month. But all of the plant’s spent nuclear fuel remains in Vernon because the federal government hasn’t yet delivered on its statutory obligation to create a permanent storage facility for radioactive waste.

It’s a nationwide problem that has led to legal wrangling and financial settlements between the federal government and plant owners who demanded reimbursement for the costs of storing and securing spent fuel. Entergy already has won a federal settlement of more than $40 million for fuel-storage costs at Vermont Yankee, and administrators are seeking further reimbursement from the Department of Energy.

The latest, most-advanced plan for a large-scale nuclear waste repository — Yucca Mountain in Nevada — stalled five years ago.

In writing about the issue recently, Department of Energy officials summed it up this way: “Previous attempts to develop long-term solutions for storage and disposal of this waste have resulted in controversy, litigation, protracted delays and ultimately a failure to address the problem.”

There are hopes that a smaller-scale, interim storage facility might be developed. The Department of Energy in 2013 released a report calling for such a storage site, which would have “an initial focus on accepting used nuclear fuel from shut-down reactor sites” like Vermont Yankee.

Signs of progress?

Citizens groups in four New England states — including the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel — last year authored a letter asking for congressional action on an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. And U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said in February that he has seen signs of progress on that front.

No matter where the storage facility is constructed, the federal government must come up with a plan to get the waste there. And that planning has begun, with Department of Energy representatives having traveled to more than a dozen shut-down nuclear plants to examine site conditions and available transportation infrastructure.

The first such federal survey of Vermont Yankee happened May 10-12. A Department of Energy spokesman didn’t comment on specifics of the visit; nor did he say whether any decisions have been made about a transport method.

The Department of Energy has said it is considering specially designed rail cars, heavy-haul trucks, and barges for moving spent nuclear fuel. But those who were involved in the Windham County meetings said the visiting team was particularly interested in assessing railroad access here.

Officials looked closely at the tracks near the plant as well as the rail corridor extending south into Massachusetts. The Federal Railroad Administration also participated in the review, said Tony Leshinskie, Vermont’s state nuclear engineer.

“Overall, what they saw in the available infrastructure was very good,” Leshinskie said.

Railroads instead of trucks

In addition to meeting with Entergy administrators and Leshinskie, federal officials also met with Windham Regional Commission representatives and members of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. Kate O’Connor, the advisory panel’s chairwoman, said rail was discussed as the “preferred method” for removing Vermont Yankee’s fuel.

“The rail line here is really in good shape, and one of the other positive things about it is that it’s so close to where the [nuclear-fuel storage] pads are,” O’Connor said.

Lynch added that “we do have a couple of rail spurs that come into the [plant] site.” Those haven’t been used for some time but could be upgraded; the idea is that rail cars could be loaded at the plant site, eliminating the need to use any trucks here.

Specific transportation plans aside, locals also said they appreciated having a chance to meet Department of Energy officials face-to-face and ask questions about what is sure to be a complicated, high-security process.

Previously, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany had expressed concerns that his agency hadn’t been part of early fuel-move discussions.

“It was a very informative meeting, and I feel like we’re now in the loop,” Campany said after he and the commission’s transportation planner, Matt Mann, spoke with the Department of Energy team.

Seeking a ’consent-based’ process

Officials said the meetings also included talk of the department’s ongoing development of a “consent-based” process aimed at finding communities that might want to host a fuel-storage site.

The Department of Energy has been gathering public suggestions on how best to approach consent-based siting; a regional public meeting on the topic has been scheduled for June 2 in Boston.

While some see the consent-based siting study as a sign of positive momentum, it also underscores the point that no one can say for sure when there might be a destination for Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel.

Entergy’s decommissioning plan says all of the plant’s spent fuel will be removed by 2052. But some say it could take longer than that if federal lawmakers don’t find and then fund a permanent fuel-storage facility.

“There’s a lot of factors that are out of control of the [Department of Energy] people we met with,” O’Connor said. “Ultimately, figuratively and literally, the buck stops with Congress.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #357 (Wednesday, May 18, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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