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The Commons
News

AREVA touts safety, experience for Vermont Yankee job

Firm will dismantle and ship reactor if NorthStar deal goes through

Originally published in The Commons issue #414 (Wednesday, June 28, 2017). This story appeared on page 0.



VERNON—In the debate over Vermont Yankee’s possible sale, attention mostly has focused on proposed buyer NorthStar Group Services.

But if the deal goes through, it will fall to a different company — AREVA Nuclear Materials — to perform the expensive, critical work of taking apart the idled plant’s reactor and shipping it away.

On June 22, an AREVA executive traveled to Vernon to tout his company’s experience in safely dismantling reactors and transporting radioactive waste, both in the U.S. and in Europe.

Fred Bailly, the company’s vice president of decommissioning and dismantling, also pledged that AREVA won’t go over budget on the Vermont Yankee job.

“All of our work is going to be performed under a fixed-price contract,” Bailly said. “If there are any expenses that go over this, we are responsible.”

Entergy, which stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, is trying to sell the Vernon plant to New York-based NorthStar by the end of next year. NorthStar says it can clean up most of the site by 2030, much faster than Entergy had planned.

The sale requires approval from both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Service Board.

NorthStar has decommissioned large fossil fuel plants and has worked on relatively small research reactors. The company hasn’t yet cleaned up a nuclear plant like Vermont Yankee.

But NorthStar has pointed to the extensive nuclear experience of AREVA, a proposed subcontractor on the Vermont Yankee project.

Washington, D.C.-based AREVA Nuclear Materials would be in charge of cutting up, packaging, and hauling away the plant’s reactor vessel and the internal portions of that vessel. In testimony filed with the state in December, NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Scott State called AREVA the “unmatched leader” in such work.

Specifically, State mentioned AREVA’s work in the late 2000s on the Wuergassen Nuclear Power Station in Germany.

Similar jobs

At the June 22 meeting in Vernon, Bailly told members of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel that Vermont Yankee’s reactor vessel “is very similar to the reactor vessel at Wuergassen in terms of design, and it is the same for the internal components.”

“We’ve performed similar decommissioning activities in the U.S.,” he added, noting work at the three other Yankee plants in New England — Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee, and Yankee Rowe.

This type of work isn’t cheap. While Bailly said AREVA Nuclear Materials already has reached contractual agreements with NorthStar, he didn’t elaborate on those deals.

In State’s previous testimony, however, he said Vermont Yankee reactor vessel segmentation will cost more than $25 million. The price of segmenting the vessel’s internals, he said, will exceed $50 million.

Bailly emphasized safety in his presentation to the advisory panel, saying most of the cutting is done underwater inside the reactor vessel.

AREVA Nuclear Materials will pack the resulting reactor waste into canisters that are welded shut, then placed inside a transport cask that is engineered to carry material with much higher radioactivity.

That cask “has been designed to be able to transport spent nuclear fuel, so it’s a little bit overdesigned,” Bailly said.

The company also is responsible for transporting the reactor pieces via rail to a radioactive waste disposal facility operated by Waste Control Specialists in Texas. AREVA will “maximize the efficiency of the packaging” in order to cut down on the number of trips to Texas, Bailly said.

AREVA says it handles more than 3,000 shipments of radioactive material annually worldwide. “It is something that is done routinely, safely, with a very well-known regulatory environment,” Bailly said.

Besides segmenting the reactor and transporting the waste, there’s a third prong to AREVA’s proposed role at Vermont Yankee: The company would support long-term management of the plant’s spent nuclear fuel, which is expected to stay on site for the foreseeable future.

AREVA also has a federal contract to develop a fleet of railcars designed to carry high-level nuclear waste — cars that would be used when spent fuel someday is moved from plants like Vermont Yankee.

’Good assurance’

At the advisory panel meeting, Bailly fielded inquiries about his company’s equipment, employees, and schedule. He said reactor segmentation could be completed in two years’ time.

Bill Irwin, a panel member and state Department of Health official who has raised questions about NorthStar’s plans, offered a compliment to AREVA based on conversations with his counterparts in Maine and Connecticut.

“I was very glad to hear that their experiences with AREVA during the decommissioning of Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee were without significant problems, so that gave me some very good assurance,” Irwin said.

In the course of Vermont Yankee discussions, AREVA has faced questions about regulatory issues in Europe. But administrators have said that, after a recent corporate restructuring, AREVA Nuclear Materials has “no financial liability or operational links” to those problems overseas.

Bailly didn’t have to revisit that topic at the Vernon meeting. But he did take several questions about safety.

Schuyler Gould of the Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition asked whether Bailly saw the close proximity of Vernon Elementary School as “problematic” for the Vermont Yankee job.

“I don’t think so,” Bailly replied, “because of the way we operate and because of the way risk is managed and the methods that we use within the reactor building.”

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