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The outbuildings at the former Vermont Yankee nuclear power plan in Vernon are slowly being torn down, one by one. This is the back wall of the administration building.

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Vermont Yankee: Going, going...

...but not quite gone yet, as NorthStar describes decommissioning project as on schedule and on budget

NorthStar’s presentation at the Sept. 20 VNDCAP meeting can be seen at bit.ly/632-vndcap. Video made by NorthStar and Orano in 2019 showing some of the decommissioning work can be seen at bit.ly/632-vy-video. Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

VERNON—The five words that anyone associated with a big project loves to say — “on time and on budget” — were uttered frequently by NorthStar Group Services CEO Scott State during a Sept. 20 media tour of the former Vermont Yankee.

The New York–based company is in the midst of decommissioning the dormant nuclear power plant, and State told reporters that he is confident that the project of taking it apart can be finished by 2026 — four years ahead of the contracted completion date of 2030.

State said the work is about 35 to 40 percent completed. Several outbuildings have been demolished, and the big pieces of the decommissioning puzzle — the turbine building and the reactor building — could be gone by 2024.

“Once the reactor vessel is disassembled, we can begin in earnest also dismantling the interior of the reactor building,” said NorthStar Vermont Yankee Senior Site Manager Corey Daniels. “So we can then take it down when we take down, or shortly after taking down, the turbine building superstructure, starting the middle to the end of next year.”

In 2019, NorthStar embarked on a project that no one in the U.S. nuclear power industry had ever tried.

The company purchased the property and the reactor, which stopped generating power on Dec. 29, 2014, from its owner, New Orleans–based Entergy Corporation.

Instead of waiting until 2060 to begin taking down Vermont Yankee, as Entergy planned to do, NorthStar said it could do the decommissioning of the plant in under a decade.

NorthStar occupies a unique niche as one of the largest demolition companies in the world (and, by one 2019 trade magazine ranking, the largest in the United States). Its leaders were confident that the company could not only execute the largest nuclear plant decommissioning project it had ever tried, but come away with a nice chunk of change in their pockets.

With about $600 million in the VY decommissioning fund and estimates by anti-nuclear advocates that it would take close to double that figure to do the job safely, NorthStar is apparently confounding its critics. Officials said the company recently marked the milestone of more than 1 million worker hours without a safety complaint, and has not yet been cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for safety violations.

State said that “we’ll end the project with $20 million to $25 million.”

When Northstar is done, the company hopes to release most of the site to the town of Vernon for other uses.

The only physical structures that will be left on the site will be the 58 dry casks that store the plant’s spent nuclear fuel.

They will be left on the site until the federal government decides upon a permanent repository for high-level nuclear waste, an ongoing debate for almost 40 years.

An attempt to site a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada ultimately failed, and no alternative plan has been advanced by the U.S. Department of Energy, which is technically the owner of all the high-level waste.

The incredible shrinking VY

The bulletproof guard towers. The smokestack. The cooling towers.

Many of the familiar features of the Vermont Yankee site are gone now.

The control room is dark, with signs that say “Abandoned” attached to the instrument panels.

The administrative building is empty and on its way toward being torn down.

Inside the turbine building, gaping holes mark the sites of the hulking turbines that once produced 620 megawatts of electricity.

The easy parts of the decommissioning process have been done. About 17 tons of demolition materials have been hauled from the site in specially fabricated boxes that are placed on rail cars for shipment. State said these boxes weigh up 240,000 pounds, and have steel walls that are 5 inches thick.

The hard parts of the process will deal with the most radioactive pieces of the plant — namely, the reactor vessel.

As of last week, NorthStar said it has dismantled portions of the reactor vessel: the reactor head, steam dryer, steam separator, shroud head, feedwater sparger, top guide, guide tubes, core plate, and shroud cylinder.

Final segmentation and packaging of the jet pump defusers is ongoing. Some of this work is performed underwater in a flooded chamber that once held the plant’s refueling pool. Still to be done is the cutting of nozzles and segmentation of the reactor vessel.

State said the reactor work is slightly behind schedule but that the rest of the project is moving ahead of expectations.

NorthStar has a lot riding on a successful completion of the Vermont Yankee project.

State said that utilities are finding out it is not economically feasible to generate electricity with nuclear power, and he predicts that as many as 15 currently operating reactors will be shut down in the coming years.

This could mean a lot of potential new nuclear plant demolition projects for NorthStar, State said.

Beside Vermont Yankee, NorthStar is currently decommissioning the Crystal River 3 Nuclear Power Plant, owned by Duke Energy, in Florida.

Where’s all the waste going?

While the ultimate fate of the high-level spent fuel rods remains in question, rail cars filled with low-level radioactive waste and debris have begun the long journey from Vernon to a private facility in Texas operated by Waste Control Specialists (WSC), a NorthStar affiliate company.

The site operated by WCS, which opened in 2011 on the Texas–New Mexico border, is one of the few in the country that accepts low-level waste.

At a Sept. 20 meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel (VNDCAP), Peter Bradford, one of Vermont’s two members of the Texas-Vermont Low Level Radioactive Waste Compact, and a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said that WCS’s finances were somewhat shaky at the moment, when it made overly optimistic estimates how how much waste it could accept.

However, Bradford said he was confident that WCS will still be in business when VY’s demolition is finished, and he reported that the Texas site has plenty of capacity.

But NorthStar and WCS have something bigger in mind for west Texas — to build the first privately-owned high-level radioactive waste disposal site in the United States, intended to accept the materials and store them until a federal solution emerges. On Sept. 13, a similar facility owned by Holtec International approximately 40 miles away, received NRC approval.

Another NorthStar affiliate involved with VY’s demolition, Orano USA, joined with WCS to create another entity known as Interim Storage Partners, LLC. Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued them a permit to build the new high-level site next to the current low-level disposal site.

Multiple watchdog groups, including the Citizens Awareness Network and Beyond Nuclear, have taken hard lines against both the Texas and New Mexico consolidated interim storage facilities. They say that federal law prohibits establishing such facilities until a permanent facility is selected.

The Yucca Mountain facility encroaches on Native lands, is sited on unstable geology, is fervently opposed in Nevada and beyond, and has had funding yanked by Congress. Neither the Trump administration nor the Biden administration have supported further development of the site, which the U.S. Government Accountability Office determined to be selected for political purposes.

With Yucca Mountain all but certain to not be the destination of the high-level waste, the watchdog groups are predicting that the interim storage facilities will become the de facto permanent home for the high-level waste that ends up there.

A consortium of anti-nuclear organizations have worked to create a nationwide group, the National Radioactive Waste Coalition. According to Citizens Awareness Network, this summer, the NRWC has launched a multi-pronged campaign to stop consideration of the Yucca Mountain Waste Repository and to oppose centralized interim storage of the used fuel.

The NRWC will also promote hardened onsite storage, the principle of storing high-level used fuel at or close to the site of generation, to prevent the risks of transporting fuel casks for thousands of miles on roads, trains, and barges through the whole country.

There is considerable opposition in Texas over bringing any high-level radioactive waste to the state. Its state Legislature passed a bill earlier this month to prevent a high-level waste facility, setting up a likely confrontation with the NRC over the issue of state-level pre-emption of federal regulatory authority — something that Vermont went through during the relicensing process for Vermont Yankee in the early 2010s.

With no permanent federal waste solution, those 58 dry casks from VY might be headed there, along with the spent fuel from the former Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant in Rowe, Mass., if those plans become real.

While State said during the media tour that it made sense to move the dry casks out of Vernon to an interim location while a permanent federal site is built, he admitted there was no specific timetable for when that might happen.

For now, whatever future use that might be envisioned for the Vermont Yankee site will also have to include provisions for safeguarding those 58 dry casks.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #632 (Wednesday, September 29, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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