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The Commons
News

Welch bill calls for feds to compensate nuke fuel towns

Lack of national repository means communities are forced to host waste

Originally published in The Commons issue #429 (Wednesday, October 11, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.



VERNON—Regardless of how quickly Vermont Yankee is decommissioned, Vernon will be stuck with the plant’s spent nuclear fuel for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., thinks that hardship should be worth some money — potentially millions of dollars per year.

Welch has teamed with a Connecticut congressman to introduce a bill requiring the federal government to send annual compensation to communities that are forced to host radioactive waste due to the lack of a national repository for that material.

It’s not the legislation’s first go-around. But Welch is hoping that other pending nuclear plant closures may spur more support for the bill this time.

“What it’s reflecting now is that there are a number of [congressional] members whose districts are seeing plants go offline,” Welch said.

Vermont Yankee stopped power production in December 2014, and plant owner Entergy is in the process of transferring all the site’s spent fuel from a cooling pool into sealed “dry casks” situated on two concrete storage pads.

Nowhere else to put it

Entergy administrators are hoping, when that fuel move is done in 2018, to sell the plant to New York-based NorthStar Group Services. NorthStar says it can clean up most of the property by 2030, decades faster than Entergy had proposed.

But NorthStar can’t do anything about the plant’s spent fuel. That material is the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Energy, and federal officials haven’t fulfilled their statutory obligation to find a centralized, long-term storage facility for such “high level” nuclear waste.

That has turned nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee into de facto storage facilities for spent fuel, which must remain under tight, 24-hour security.

Welch has expressed optimism about the potential development of a “consolidated interim storage facility” for spent fuel — meaning a site that isn’t permanent but that could take fuel from places like Vermont Yankee.

Though one such interim storage proposal for Texas has been suspended, another in New Mexico is under review by federal regulators.

“We’re going to continue to pursue that alternative — longer-term storage,” Welch said. “We don’t want to have our communities hosting nuclear waste for decades, if not a century.”

In the meantime, though, he’s pursuing some relief for such communities. Welch and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., on Oct. 3 introduced the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act, which aims to compensate municipalities that host dormant nuclear plants and spent fuel.

The bill directs the Department of Energy to pay those municipalities $15 per kilogram of spent nuclear fuel each year. That’s the same rate, officials said, that would be paid to a community that agreed to host an interim fuel storage site under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.

The legislation includes a provision to reduce that payment, if necessary, to ensure that all spent-fuel host communities receive compensation.

Funding source unclear

Such an adjustment might be necessary given the sheer volume of spent fuel at former nuclear plants. Based on figures provided by Entergy, Vermont Yankee’s spent-fuel assemblies weigh about 2.7 million pounds or 1.2 million kilograms, which would mean a payment of nearly $18.5 million for Vernon under the bill’s current funding formula.

In total, the bill authorizes a $100 million appropriation for the program each fiscal year from 2018 to 2024.

Where that money would come from isn’t yet clear. While an initial press release cited a national nuclear waste fund, Welch spokeswoman Kate Hamilton later clarified that, “if the bill becomes law, Congress would then have to appropriate the money to fund the program. Our legislation doesn’t specify a funding source at this time.”

Welch and Courtney believe the money would be well worth it.

“It is long past time for the federal government to live up to its commitments on spent nuclear fuel disposal,” said Courtney, whose district includes the former Connecticut Yankee plant. “We cannot allow small communities and municipalities to continue to be financially hurt while they await action on the establishment of a federal nuclear waste storage facility.”

Welch added that paying nuclear host communities “might provide some incentive for Congress to get moving quicker” on finding a national spent-fuel storage facility. The federal government already is paying nuclear licensees who sued the Department of Energy to recover fuel-storage costs.

Vernon Selectboard Chairman Josh Unruh said he appreciates the sentiment behind the Stranded Nuclear Waste Accountability Act. But he won’t be holding his breath while waiting for federal payments.

That’s because Unruh, a nuclear power supporter who has traveled outside Vermont to tell Vernon’s story, believes there’s a “stigma” attached to nuclear issues among the general population.

“It would be great if we could get an extra few bucks,” he said. “But it’s one of those things that I don’t actually see happening.”

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