BRATTLEBORO—In less than a week, the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon will stop generating power and shut down after over four decades.
By the afternoon of Dec. 22, Senior Nuclear Training Instructor Brian Stewart had completed the last training in the control room simulator — an exact replica of the actual control room at the nuclear station — at the Entergy headquarters, a few miles north of the plant on Old Ferry Road.
He stood in the 1960s-era pale avocado green control room there, surrounded by procedure manuals and laminated checklists dotted with red write-and-wipe ink.
Behind Stewart, a bank of illuminated buttons and digital readouts representing the control rods in the reactor have transitioned to double zeros.
During the training, operators took the plant from a normal power generation to “a zero-energy state,” said Stewart.
The simulator is the control room’s identical twin: when a button, dial, screen, or computer in the control room is changed in any way, so is the simulator. Even chairs and telephones are mirrored between the two areas.
Crews of five or six employees licensed to operate the plant train and re-train in the simulator throughout the year.
Stewart explains that shutting down the plant will echo the procedures for powering down the reactor during a refueling.
But this time, when the plant shuts down, he said, operators will separate VY from the energy grid.
Operators will insert 89 control rods into the reactor that will help power it down. The fuel will remain there until it’s transferred to the spent-fuel pool.
Stewart said the training session was his final official task at VY.
“It’s sad,” said Stewart, who described the past year as “stressful.” The stress did not come from the work. Nor from his job. Nor from his colleagues.
Stewart said he’s not happy that VY will close.
“It’s unnecessary,” he said, charging that a “perfectly viable plant” will blink off.
“The political environment was not favorable here,” he said.
Stewart points the finger at the state as one of the reasons the plant will close. But he also looks toward the nuclear industry, which, in his opinion, does not educate the public on nuclear issues. The public doesn’t understand how plants operate or how the science behind nuclear energy works, he said.
Eight years away from retirement, Stewart said he plans to take some time off to recuperate after the plant’s shut down. Then he will decide what to do next.
Entergy, as required by federal law, held a press event on Dec. 22 to provide an overview of its emergency planning structure, the media’s role in the event of an accident, and to provide the press with emergency planning informational materials.
Much of the discussion, however, quickly turned to decommissioning.
According to officials, many aspects of the plant’s contingency plans will change very little until 2016. As the plant lays off or transfers workers, the personnel involved with emergency planning will change but the structure and response plans will remain.
The first large reduction of staff is planned for Jan. 19, 2015, when the plant will formally enter the decommissioning process and the number of staff will drop from more than 500 to approximately 350.
Once the plant is no longer generating power and as the fuel moves from the reactor — first to the spent-fuel pool and then, eventually, to dry-cask storage — the types of accidents for which personnel train will also change, said officials.
Spokesperson Marty Cohn said that VY is looking to become a model for decommissioning.
“We’re literally writing the book,” he said, indicating bound copies of the company’s public site-assessment study, which he touted as the first of its kind.
Cohn said that Entergy has embarked on a new and higher level of transparency through the site-assessment study, posting documents to its decommissioning website, and using social media to reach the public and answer questions. Most companies don’t provide so much information, he said.
Winding it down
VY is one of the first boiling-water reactors to undergo decommissioning, said officials.
Entergy submitted its Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week. The report outlines the company’s intended path for decommissioning VY.
Some of the initial steps will parallel closing up a house for the winter. Unneeded pipes and tanks will be drained and auxiliary buildings torn down or closed up. The spent fuel will remain in the pool during this first phase.
According to Entergy, the PSDAR includes a summary of historical environmental and radiological conditions of the site, explains what activities the company expects to occur as VY transitions to a decommissioning site, and discusses updated cost estimates for decommissioning.
The NRC provides three options for decommissioning a nuclear plant. Entergy has selected SAFSTOR, which allows up to 60 years to decommission the site. The company will essentially mothball the plant until the decommissioning fund grows to an amount that will fund the process.
As of November, the decommissioning fund contained approximately $665 million.
According to Entergy, the estimated decommissioning cost is $1.24 billion in 2014 dollars. The total decommissioning cost estimate includes costs associated with terminating the NRC operating license ($817 million), spent-fuel management ($368 million), and site restoration ($57 million).
Spent fuel will remain on site in dry-cask storage until the federal Department of Energy removes the fuel to an as-yet- nonexistent federal repository.
Entergy has applied for a certificate of public good (CPG) from the state for permission to construct a second dry-cask storage pad, commonly referred to as an ISFSI pad. The company anticipates moving the spent fuel from the spent- fuel pool and into dry-cask storage by 2020.
The company said it plans to seek NRC approval to use approximately $225 million from the decommissioning fund to fund expenses related to spent-fuel management. The remaining approximately $143 million would be raised through external financing.
Many of the details about the PSDAR submitted to the NRC match the draft version of the study submitted to the state in October.
The state had 60 days to review and comment on the draft PSDAR. The NRC will have 90 days to review. According to a press release from Entergy, the NRC will likely hold a public hearing on the study in January.
On Dec. 22, officials said that Entergy will maintain the plant’s current emergency planning zone — a 10-mile radius around the plant — until the spring of 2016.
The company is pushing to shrink the EPZ to the plant’s perimeter at that point, a proposal that has met with controversy from community members and officials who say that as long as spent fuel remains in the reactor or spent-fuel pool, it poses a hazard to the surrounding communities.
The EPZ should remain as is, say opponents. Reducing the size of the EPZ would also reduce Entergy’s financial obligations toward emergency planning.
Entergy argues that reducing the EPZ is consistent with what other decommissioned plants have done.
The plant started a “coast down” phase Sept. 15. As of this week the plant is operating at about 74 percent power.