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Feds approve VY spent fuel plan

NRC staff also reaffirms approval for using the plant's decommissioning trust fund for fuel management

VERNON—Entergy’s plan to manage Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel is “adequate” and consistent with federal rules, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided.

In approving Entergy’s long-term fuel plan Oct. 5, the NRC also reaffirmed its endorsement for the company’s controversial proposal to use the Vernon plant’s decommissioning trust fund to manage that fuel.

Fuel management is expected to cost $368 million at Yankee, but the NRC says Entergy “has demonstrated reasonable assurance that funding will be available to maintain the [spent fuel plan] until the fuel is transferred to the Department of Energy for permanent disposal.”

Vermont Yankee stopped producing power on Dec. 29, 2014, leaving behind 3,880 radioactive spent fuel assemblies. Just 884 of those assemblies are stored in sealed dry casks at the site, while 2,996 remain in a pool inside the plant’s reactor building.

By the end of 2020, Entergy says, all spent fuel will be stored in dry casks on site.

Revised plan since shutdown

The NRC originally approved Vermont Yankee’s fuel management plan in 2009, but Entergy had to submit a revised plan last year due to its decision to shut down the plant.

The new NRC decision is the federal agency’s seal of approval for that revised plan, though that approval is marked “preliminary.”

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency’s commissioners don’t need to vote on the plan.

The Oct. 5 approval is labeled preliminary only “because the NRC staff will continue to review the company’s plans moving forward,” Sheehan said.

The NRC document says Entergy’s “updated program to manage and provide funding for the management of all irradiated fuel is adequate and provides sufficient detail regarding the associated funding mechanisms.”

“Further, the staff has determined that the elected actions within the program are consistent with NRC requirements for licensed possession of irradiated nuclear fuel and that these actions will be implemented in a timely basis,” the decision says.

How Entergy expects to pay for its handling of spent nuclear fuel has been a major source of contention between the company and the state.

NRC staff decided in June that Entergy can draw from the decommissioning trust fund for fuel-related expenses, but Vermont officials have challenged that decision, both through the federal government and the courts based on worries about the trust fund’s long-term solvency.

The Oct. 5 NRC decision shows that the federal agency has no such worries.

The commission throws around some big numbers, including a projected $368 million price tag for fuel management at Yankee; the decommissioning trust fund’s $655 million balance as of October 2014; and Entergy’s plan to use a $145 million line of credit to pay for transferring fuel into dry casks.

Also, the commission says it assumed an annual 2 percent growth rate in the trust fund while Vermont Yankee is in an extended period of dormancy called SAFSTOR.

Together, all of those factors “are expected to provide reasonable assurance for funding from the [decommissioning trust fund] for the estimated license termination and spent fuel management plan,” NRC staff wrote.

Keeping an eye on the numbers

There is an acknowledgment, however, that things could change. The NRC decision says that, in the event of a “material decline” in Vermont Yankee’s trust fund balance, the staff’s “analysis and findings may be impacted.”

So the agency is pledging to keep an eye on the financial situation at Yankee.

Entergy “must annually submit to the NRC, by March 31, a report on the status of its funding for managing irradiated fuel,” the decision says. “Further [...] the licensee shall notify the NRC of any significant changes” to the spent fuel management plan.

The document includes a table detailing Entergy’s proposed expenditures for spent fuel. The expenses start at $4.7 million this year, then jump to $14.3 million in 2016; $29.5 million in 2017; $49 million in 2018; $62.3 million in 2019; and $59.7 million in 2020.

The outlays diminish greatly from there, given that Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel will be in dry casks after 2020. But ongoing fuel management expenses are projected at roughly $4 million annually until 2052.

That’s when Entergy’s fuel budget at Yankee zeroes out.

DOE: Interim federal storage for spent nuclear fuel?

The NRC notes that the company’s management plan “is based on the assumption that [the U.S. Department of Energy] will commence acceptance of VY’s spent fuel in 2026 and complete removal of all spent fuel from the site in 2052.”

That schedule will seem overly ambitious to many observers, given the federal government’s lack of progress toward creating a central repository for nuclear waste.

Some Entergy critics say there hasn’t been nearly enough consideration for what will happen if spent nuclear fuel remains in Vernon well into the second half of the 21st century.

But Vermont Yankee spokesman Martin Cohn said the company is basing its plans on the federal government’s current strategy for taking responsibility for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel.

“This is the latest info from the [Department of Energy],” Cohn said. “In 2013, it projected an interim storage facility for 2021 and beginning to remove spent fuel in 2023. Based on its projection, 2026 is where VY fits into the queue.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #327 (Wednesday, October 14, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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