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Entergy to start moving spent fuel in 2017

Vernon plant’s spent nuclear fuel will go into dry-cask storage two years earlier than originally planned

VERNON—Entergy is accelerating its plans to move Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel into more stable storage, with administrators saying they’ve developed a “safe and efficient” proposal for getting the job done on time.

If a state permitting process goes as expected, crews will start transferring the Vernon plant’s spent fuel to dry cask storage in 2017 – two years earlier than initially planned. Entergy announced the change on Dec. 16, but had first disclosed consideration of a schedule shift in an October regulatory filing.

The decision doesn’t raise the fuel project’s $145 million price tag, and it doesn’t mean the job will be complete any sooner than the original 2020 deadline. But it does mean Entergy administrators are giving themselves and a contractor more time to get through the painstakingly slow, closely monitored move of radioactive material.

“It is a methodical, careful process,” said Chris Wamser, Vermont Yankee’s site vice president.

Entergy stopped producing power at Vermont Yankee nearly a year ago. While decommissioning may take up to 60 years under the federally sanctioned SAFSTOR program, moving the plant’s spent fuel into dry cask storage is an important early goal in that process.

Entergy already maintains one spent fuel pad holding 13 dry casks at the site. Moving campaigns in 2008, 2011, and 2012 filled those casks with 884 spent fuel assemblies.

But most of Yankee’s spent fuel – 2,996 assemblies – remains in a cooling pool inside the plant’s reactor building. Entergy will need a total of 58 casks to hold all of the site’s fuel, and the company is seeking a state certificate of public good to construct a second spent fuel pad adjacent to the first.

That process has been contentious due to some observers’ concerns about whether the pads’ location will have any effect on decommissioning. But, based on a schedule set by the Vermont Public Service Board, Entergy is hoping for state approval by spring 2016 and completion of the second pad in 2017.

Now, Entergy wants to begin moving fuel into new dry casks that same year. Given the timing, some of the plant’s fuel will be moved onto the existing pad, Wamser said.

The company also had to fit a number of moving parts together in order to make the schedule shift work.

First, Entergy ensured that its cask manufacturer – Florida-based Holtec International – could deliver storage equipment sooner than originally expected. Second, Holtec also committed to sending “qualified personnel” to Vermont Yankee starting in 2017.

That’s necessary because, in contrast to earlier fuel moves at Yankee, Holtec “will be providing the labor to actually load the casks,” Wamser said. The company also will build the second pad.

All of this will happen via a “fixed-price” contract with Holtec, Wamser said. Entergy has taken out lines of credit totaling $145 million for the project.

That’s a key part of the complicated financial debate regarding Vermont Yankee’s $1.2 billion decommissioning plan.

Entergy expects to tap into the plant’s decommissioning trust fund to cover long-term fuel-management costs at the plant, and Vermont officials have objected to that plan. But the company’s $145 million credit lines mean the trust fund won’t also bear the burden of initial fuel-storage costs – the price of the Holtec casks and the second pad, as well as the cost of transferring the fuel.

“We’re sensitive to the stakeholder concerns in connection with the decommissioning trust fund,” Wamser said.

Eventually, Entergy plans to seek recovery of those initial costs by suing the U.S. Department of Energy for breaching its contract to provide a national repository for spent nuclear fuel. The lack of such a facility means the material will remain at the Yankee property for the long term, though current federal projections indicate the fuel could be removed by 2052.

There are shorter-term worries about Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel, as some have questioned the safety of the transfer process and have noted the proximity of Vernon Elementary School across the street from the plant.

In the wake of Entergy’s announcement on Dec. 16, Wamser cited “very detailed procedures” for the transfer of nuclear fuel.

He said the dry casks have been rigorously tested and have received Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval, with “very specific training and qualifications” required for moving them. Even the job of welding the casks shut “is an extremely specialized skill with high inspection requirements,” Wamser said.

And, as Entergy’s schedule change seems to indicate, speed is not a part of the fuel-transfer process. Wamser said it takes about a week to complete one cask, and that includes the container’s short trip to the storage pad via a hulking, tracked vehicle nicknamed “Cletus.”

“Although a very large piece of equipment, it is slow as molasses,” Wamser said.

He declined to disclose any plans for heightened security during fuel transfer. But the plant’s security force remains in place post-shutdown, and Wamser said “the security is here to protect the fuel.”

“Regardless of whether the fuel is in the pool, in transit or on the pad, we have a very robust security posture at all times,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #337 (Wednesday, December 23, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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