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VY nuclear waste? ‘No, thanks,’ say those who live near dump sites in Southwest

Activists question fairness of moving spent fuel away from Vermonters' homes, closer to their own

BRATTLEBORO—In the debate over Vermont Yankee decommissioning, there’s been a common theme: The plant’s spent fuel has got to go, and as soon as possible.

Recently, however, a small but vocal group has been raising concerns about where that radioactive material will end up and whether it’s fair for Vermont to make that waste someone else’s problem.

That movement may be best personified by Rose Gardner, a New Mexico resident who lives near two proposed high-level nuclear waste disposal areas.

Gardner recently toured New England states with a simple message, summed up during a stop in Brattleboro: “The waste that you don’t want would be coming to me. And I don’t want it.”

Vermont Yankee stopped producing power more than two years ago, but most of the Vernon plant’s spent fuel remains in a cooling pool in the reactor building.

Plant owner Entergy has started a $143 million project that, if all goes according to the company’s plan, will result in the spent fuel being stored in sealed casks by the end of next year.

No destination in sight

Theoretically, the federal government will at some point take custody of that fuel and move it out of Vermont. U.S. Department of Energy representatives already have visited the Vernon plant to examine the suitability of local rail lines for transporting the material.

But there’s currently no place for the fuel to go, as federal officials haven’t been able to develop a long-term, centralized storage facility for high-level nuclear waste.

That’s a source of much consternation for those who want to see the Vermont Yankee site restored and reused. Members of community advisory panels in four states including Vermont sent congressional representatives a letter in late 2015 arguing that “indefinite on-site storage of this material stranded in the communities we live and work in is unacceptable.”

The citizens’ groups endorsed the idea of interim storage sites that could begin taking spent nuclear fuel while the federal government continues to work toward development of a long-term “geologic” disposal site.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. and a member of a committee that has jurisdiction over nuclear issues, also has expressed hope for an interim storage site to get spent nuclear fuel out of Vermont.

But not everyone is on board with that idea — even in communities that still host nuclear waste.

Some who spoke at a public hearing last month in Vernon suggested that Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel should stay here.

And a recent “environmental justice” speaking tour that included stops in Massachusetts and Vermont was organized by anti-nuclear groups who don’t like the idea of interim storage in the Southwestern U.S.

“It looks attractive to a lot of people who just want to get the waste out of their community. The problem is, it’s going to go someplace,” said Chris Williams of the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network.

“It’s important for the reactor community people ... to hear from people who are on the other end — the receiving end of that,” Williams added.

’Many people don’t want it’

That’s why Gardner was on the tour. She lives in Eunice, N.M, which is situated on the Texas border in what she described as a “nuclear corridor” that hosts several facilities including a low-level nuclear waste site operated by Waste Control Specialists.

Waste Control Specialists would be a contractor in the proposed accelerated decommissioning project at Vermont Yankee. The Vernon plant’s low-level waste already is going to Waste Control’s Andrews, Texas, disposal site under a multistate agreement called the Texas Compact.

During her Brattleboro stop on May 6, Gardner discussed Waste Control Specialists’ attempts to also open a high-level waste site that could take Vermont Yankee’s spent fuel. While acknowledging that there is some support for the facility, she also said “many, many people don’t want it.”

She cited social, environmental, and health concerns, some of which apply even before the waste reaches interim storage.

“We know that transportation’s a big issue in moving this high-level waste,” Gardner said. “Approximately 4,000 trains are estimated to go through my community to bring high-level waste from around the nation to be stored at [the Waste Control Specialists site]. And it’s not even a permanent storage area.”

Waste Control Specialists last month put its Texas high-level waste project on hold, citing financial concerns. It is unclear whether the project will resume.

But there is another high-level waste interim storage site proposed near Gardner’s home, on land between the New Mexico cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs.

That project also has a Vermont Yankee connection: It is being developed by Holtec International, the company that makes the casks used at the Vernon plant and that is handling the upcoming movement of fuel into those casks.

Gardner is worried that, if either site is built, interim storage might turn into long-term storage.

“It’s time to pour some money into finding a permanent repository for this horrible problem that we’re dealing with,” she said.

Security risks

Another activist on the tour, Kevin Kamps of Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear, also railed against temporary storage sites for high-level nuclear waste. He called them “parking lot dumps.”

“The security risks of doing this are problematic,” Kamps said. “Moving waste is a big deal. You don’t want to do it multiple times. You want to do it once.”

Kamps, however, is no fan of the permanent nuclear waste dump that’s been proposed for Yucca Mountain in Nevada. With the Trump administration signaling that it may revive the Yucca project, “we get to fight that one again,” Kamps said.

Proposed solutions for high-level waste were in short supply at the Brattleboro meeting. There was some talk of creating more-robust, longer-term storage at the Vermont Yankee site, but that’s not likely to win much favor with local residents or with the plant’s owner.

Speakers also discussed the need for any community that may host a geological nuclear waste site to offer its “informed consent” for such a project. “There are ways that happens ... in terms of paying people to leave if they want, [or] providing subsidies to people who stay,” said Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network.

But no matter where the waste ends up, Katz takes a dim view of the whole business.

“The reality is, there are no solutions for any of this waste,” she said. “What has been set up is this pitting of communities against each other.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #408 (Wednesday, May 17, 2017).

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