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Emergency planning zone is no more

With NRC’s blessing, status disappears for 18 towns in the radius of now-shuttered nuclear plant

VERNON—On Tuesday morning, a big part of Vermont Yankee’s footprint vanished.

That’s because the shut-down nuclear plant’s 10-mile emergency planning zone, which touches 18 towns in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, expired due to a license change approved last year by federal regulators.

The EPZ’s demise means there will be no more sirens or tone-alert radios to warn residents of an incident at the Vernon facility, where radioactive spent nuclear fuel is expected to remain until 2052.

But Entergy administrators and state officials said they are maintaining a “robust system” for emergency response and public notification.

“The bottom line is, we’re required to have an emergency plan here,” said Mike McKenney, Vermont Yankee’s emergency-preparedness manager. “The goal is to protect the health and safety of the public.”

Entergy owns about 125 acres of land at the Vermont Yankee site. But for more than four decades, the plant’s actual presence has been much larger due to the reach of the emergency planning zone.

Anyone living within that circle is familiar with Entergy’s calendars and maps showing emergency contacts, evacuation information, and instructions for ingesting potassium iodide to combat radiation exposure.

The EPZ towns and states also have received annual, federally mandated financial allocations from Entergy to support emergency planning, personnel and equipment.

All of that is changing. Entergy received permission late last year from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to shrink the emergency planning zone to the plant site itself, with officials saying the risk of accident — and any associated offsite radiation release — has decreased.

That is in part because all fuel has been permanently removed from Vermont Yankee’s reactor. But McKenney said it is also because the site’s spent fuel has “cooled” significantly since the plant ceased producing power in December 2014.

Though the NRC gave its OK, the emergency changes were controversial at the state level.

Entergy plans to move all of Vermont Yankee’s spent nuclear fuel into more-stable dry cask storage by the end of 2020, but most of that material currently is stored in a cooling pool inside the reactor building. Vermont officials argue that, at least for the next several years, Entergy should continue to pay for an enhanced, regional emergency-response organization due to the risks posed by spent fuel.

“We’ve always been concerned about this issue,” state Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said. “Although the risk is substantially reduced from an operating reactor, we think that, as long as the spent fuel is in the pool, we ought to have a [regional] program in place to respond to potential emergencies.”

Though there is no longer any federal mandate to do so, Entergy has struck a deal to voluntarily provide ongoing emergency funding to New Hampshire — albeit at a greatly reduced level. Recchia said he is engaged in similar talks, meaning it is still possible that Vermont’s Radiological Emergency Response Program budget — currently a $1.6 million line item — won’t be zeroed out next fiscal year.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn confirmed that Entergy is continuing to negotiate future emergency payments with officials in both Vermont and Massachusetts. But the bottom line, he said, is that “we’re no longer going to be giving the kind of money that the states have become accustomed to.”

Nevertheless, Entergy administrators contend that the “permanently defueled” emergency plan that took effect April 19 is suitable for the risks that remain at Vermont Yankee. The changes include:

• Entergy is vacating its Joint Information Center and emergency operations facility on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro.

“We just had the property appraisals done, and we’ll probably be moving to market those very shortly,” Cohn said.

• As another round of layoffs looms, Vermont Yankee’s new emergency plan calls for its internal emergency-response organization to shrink from about 120 staffers to just 30, McKenney said.

• The plant’s two top emergency action levels — “general emergency” and “site area emergency” — will no longer be in use. That leaves only two, less-serious levels — “alert” and “unusual event.”

• Entergy will no longer distribute emergency calendars, maps, and tone-alert radios.

While EPZ towns were given the opportunity to take ownership of Entergy’s sirens, most opted out; removal of 24 of the 37 sirens will begin “very soon,” McKenney said.

• The company still will be required to notify state officials of any emergency at the plant, but the maximum time frame for doing so expands from 15 minutes to 60 minutes.

“If you look at where we are, being a defueled reactor and with fuel that has cooled to a certain point, any postulated [emergency] event is so slow in developing that it helps support the justification for that time change,” McKenney said.

With the Vermont Yankee sirens and radios inactive, it will fall to the state to let residents know if something has gone wrong at the plant.

After receiving word of an emergency from Entergy, “we will make a decision about what precautionary or protective actions people need to take, if any,” said Erica Bornemann, chief of staff for the Vermont Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security.

That can happen via traditional media notifications, she said, but it could also happen quickly via the VT-Alert system. “We can call people’s phones — including cell phones — within a certain geographic area,” Bornemann said. “Not only can we call cell phones, we can text them.”

Residents can customize what type of alerts they would like to receive on the VT-Alert website, www.vtalert.gov/home.

“I can understand that [the EPZ changes] might cause a certain amount of consternation,” Bornemann said. “We just want to ensure folks know that they’re not left hanging, and we maintain our commitments to emergency preparedness in that region.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #353 (Wednesday, April 20, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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