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Illinois plant may be model for VY cleanup

Job at Zion nuclear provides some insight into how Entergy hopes to speed cleanup by selling Vermont Yankee

VERNON—In some respects, Entergy is breaking new ground in its proposal to sell Vermont Yankee to a company that will fast-track decommissioning.

But officials also are looking 780 miles west to Illinois, and the town of Zion, for clues as to how things might go in Vernon.

On the shore of Lake Michigan, a contractor has been working for six years to clean up the former Zion nuclear plant. There are key differences between what’s happening at Zion and what’s been proposed at Vermont Yankee, but the basic concept — outsourcing decommissioning to get a quicker result — is the same.

While things haven’t always gone smoothly at Zion, cleanup contractor EnergySolutions says the project is on budget and ahead of schedule. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently expects to terminate the plant’s license — signaling the end of decommissioning — by 2020, though there are indications that could happen sooner.

“This six-year overall performance reflects our workers’ dedication to excellence in the safe decommissioning of the Zion Nuclear Power Station, and we are extremely proud of our employees for the efficient work completed,” EnergySolutions President Ken Robuck said while updating the project’s status late last month.

Taking on a massive cleanup job

Nearly two years after stopping power production at Vermont Yankee, Entergy announced Nov. 8 that it has an agreement to sell the Vernon plant to New York-based NorthStar Group Services Inc.

The sale, which is subject to state and federal approval, is expected to close by the end of 2018.

NorthStar would be partnering with three companies to undertake the massive cleanup job in Vernon and is pledging to finish decommissioning and site restoration by 2030.

That’s 45 years sooner than Entergy’s decommissioning plan.

Entergy’s plan is novel. A federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any decommissioning plant being sold to another company. And Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Wholesale Commodities, declared that “we believe this could set a model for future decommissioning efforts.”

At the same time, though, Mohl said Entergy “certainly looked at” what’s happening at Zion.

That plant, situated on the shore of Lake Michigan about 50 miles north of Chicago, was shut in early 1998 by Commonwealth Edison, a subsidiary of Exelon.

Though Exelon is a giant in the energy industry, the company eventually looked to Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions — which, coincidentally, has been handling water disposal at Vermont Yankee — to undertake decommissioning at Zion.

EnergySolutions formed a new subsidiary, ZionSolutions, which took over Zion’s NRC license in September 2010.

At the time, it was billed as a “first-of-its-kind approach to accelerate the decommissioning of nuclear power plants.” Administrators said the idea was to push Zion’s cleanup “at least 12 years ahead of schedule.”

A key distinction

Mohl pointed out that there is a major difference between the Zion arrangement and the Vermont Yankee proposal: While Entergy wants to sell the Vernon plant outright to NorthStar, Exelon has maintained ownership of Zion and will take custody of the plant’s license and spent fuel when decommissioning is finished.

There also are differences in size and scale between the two cleanups. Zion had two reactors capable of churning out a combined 2,000 megawatts of power, and the site covers 256 acres. Yankee was a single-unit, 605 megawatt plant on 125 acres.

But there are similarities, as well. The plants are of the same vintage — Vermont Yankee opened in 1972, and Zion received its operating licenses the following year, NRC records show.

There are similar spent-fuel storage needs. Vermont Yankee will need 58 sealed casks to hold its used fuel, and EnergySolutions has said there are 61 spent-fuel casks at Zion.

Cleanup-cost estimates have been in the same general neighborhood, relatively speaking. Entergy has projected decommissioning will cost $1.24 billion at Vermont Yankee, while Exelon has said Zion’s cleanup is a $1 billion job.

That number, however, may be shrinking. While there were previous news reports that the Zion decommissioning had faced funding shortfalls, ZionSolutions issued an update a few weeks ago saying the job is on budget.

The announcement also said decommissioning is “88 percent complete and several years ahead of the original 10-year schedule.” The accelerated schedule, the document said, “will directly translate into a lower overall decommissioning cost.”

Touting achievements at Zion

The company has touted several achievements and milestones at Zion. All the plant’s spent fuel had been loaded into 61 dry casks by January 2015, and administrators characterized it as “the largest fuel-transfer campaign to date in the U.S.”

And in March 2016, ZionSolutions said it had removed the last of the “large components” from the plant. Large components include steam generators, pressurizers, pipe, reactor coolant pumps, and motors.

ZionSolutions has an advantage — via its parent company — when disposing of Zion’s waste. The NRC says the contractor is “using a ‘rip and ship’ process that will reduce the labor-intensive separation of contaminated materials and transport the [waste] in bulk to the EnergySolutions disposal site in Utah and to WCS in Texas.”

That same disposal advantage appears to be built into the proposed Vermont Yankee decommissioning arrangement: The “WCS” cited in the Zion project is Waste Control Solutions, which would be one of NorthStar’s partners in Vernon. Entergy pointed out, in announcing the NorthStar deal, that WCS will be responsible for waste management at Yankee and operates a radioactive waste site in Andrews, Texas.

Despite the positive reports coming from Zion of late, an EnergySolutions spokesman on Friday said he wouldn’t answer questions about the project.

NRC questions

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan couldn’t verify the company’s claim that Zion decommissioning is 88 percent finished, but he did say that the project “is progressing and is fairly far along.”

“We have had inspectors at Zion during crucial decommissioning activities and at other times, and we have not observed any significant performance issues,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan reiterated that the NRC will apply the same scrutiny to Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning and the proposed sale to NorthStar.

“We’ll want to know if NorthStar and its decommissioning contracting firms are qualified to carry out the dismantlement and radiological cleanup of Vermont Yankee,” Sheehan said.

“This would include the appropriate financial and technical capabilities,” he added. “The amount of money available to perform this work via the plant’s decommissioning trust fund and any other sources will be considered as part of this review.”

Financial questions were among the issues and concerns raised in the wake of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee sale announcement. But in a statement issued Nov. 11, Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group New England Coalition offered a potentially positive financial link between Zion and Vermont Yankee.

In both cases, said coalition Senior Technical Adviser Ray Shadis, the actual cost of cleanup may be far less than the plant operators initially had claimed.

“People, including regulators, often just don’t get it,” Shadis said. “Decommissioning can be a profitable business.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #383 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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