Decommissioning takes center stage in first day of final Vermont Yankee hearings

The Vermont Public Service Board on Monday kicked off what's expected to be the final two weeks of hearings on whether it's in the public's best interest for Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to obtain a new state operating permit.

“This is a very critical phase of the case,” said Geoffrey Commons, attorney and director of public advocacy at the state's Public Service Department. “We think this is the last evidentiary hearing the Public Service Board will hold before issuing its determination.”

The board began scheduled testimony with decommissioning, a hot-button topic. Critics of Vermont Yankee have warned for years that the plant contains dangerous levels of radioactive waste. Many parties have voiced concern that the plant's parent company, Entergy Corp., doesn't have adequate funds to decommission the plant and isn't planning to remove major infrastructure.

In February 2010, the Vermont Senate voted 26-4 to block Entergy from seeking a 20-year renewal of its state license. That was during Gov. Peter Shumlin's final term as senate president pro tem.

In March 2011, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission found no cause to shut the plant down based on radiological safety, and extended the plant's federal license for 20 years.

One month later, Entergy sued the state on the grounds that it was attempting to preempt federal authority. Entergy won that suit.

While that case is now tied up in federal appeals court, the Public Service Board is proceeding with its own case, trying to determine whether to relicense the 41-year-old plant.

Shumlin has vowed to do everything within his power to shut down the plant. He appoints the commissioner of the Public Service Department, and the department argues that the board should not grant the plant a permit.

“Entergy has not demonstrated it should be issued a certificate of public good,” Commons said. “Our goal, as in every case, is to get the board a full record with good evidence so that they can make a solidly entered decision that reflects the public good and can be held up on appeal.”

Decommissioning concerns

Up first in the board's hot seat on Monday was William Cloutier, a project manager for Entergy subsidiary TLG Services, Inc. Cloutier oversaw the 2012 cost analysis for decommissioning Vermont Yankee.

According to the report, the cost to decommission Vermont Yankee ranges from $850 million to $1.16 billion. The cheaper option, classified as “DECON,” would be quick removal and decontamination of the site. The more expensive option, referred to as “SAFSTOR,” are often lengthier processes of “deferred decontamination,” lasting up to 60 years.

Based on May 31, 2013 figures provided by Vermont Yankee, the market value of the plant's federally mandated decommissioning fund was $576 million.

The Windham Regional Commission argues that the full decommissioning amount is still not enough to fully remediate the site. Furthermore, the commission is concerned that Entergy is leaning toward a SAFSTOR route that would take decades to dismantle the plant.

“What we're really looking for is prompt and complete decommissioning,” said Tom Buchanan, who sits on the executive board of the Windham Regional Commission. “When the plant shuts down, we want it decommissioned immediately, and we want them to remove all structures so it's ready for redevelopment.”

The regional planning commission is neutral on whether the plant be relicensed. But Buchanan said the commission takes issue with Entergy's plan to leave onsite all foundations and infrastructure 3 feet below ground level.

“There are foundations that go down 40 or 50 feet. There are giant tunnels big enough for a man to walk through, 10 feet in diameter, that would just sit there forever,” he said. “We think that makes it harder to redevelop the property. We would like to make sure TLG budgets for removing all the structures when the plant shuts down.”

Legislation for remediation

Others share Buchanan's worries.

“There's a continuing concern that's there's not enough money for both decommissioning and restoring the site after the radioactive materials are removed,” said Sandy Levine, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation. “That's a real risk, and that's a risk Entergy did not evaluate in the work they did.”

Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. He said it would “make good sense” for the General Assembly to pass legislation this year requiring Vermont Yankee to set aside more funding for remediation.

“I think the state and the power of the people in passing legislation need to be on the record confirming the agreement that Entergy originally agreed to enter into when it bought Vermont Yankee,” Klein said. “That is that they would take decommissioning beyond what is federally required of them. That needs to be confirmed and have the financial firepower behind it, so that property won't just be a vast wasteland for 100 years.”

Legislation introduced by the vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, and the committee's clerk, Rep. Tim Jerman, D-Essex, would require Vermont Yankee to put at least $40 million in an escrow account for restoring the property to a usable “greenfield” state. Klein said he'd like his committee to build from House bill 139 next session.

“Entergy agreed that when it came time to decommission the plant they'd take it to greenfield status, making it so the property was put back into useable condition as quickly as possible,” Klein said. “It didn't mean it would be put back to its most natural state; we just want the property to be used again in its entirety as quickly as possible.”

Spent fuel pools, warning flags and NRC approval

At the Public Service Board hearing, Windham Commissioner Buchanan questioned TLG's Cloutier about the economics of storing spent fuel in the facility's spent fuel poolrather than dry cask storage, which is touted by experts to be safer for long-term storage of nuclear waste.

“It depends upon how long you assume it's going to be on site,” Cloutier said about spent fuel after a plant shuts down. “There is a crossover point where dry storage is more economical than continuing to leave it in the pool.”

“Could Entergy make a decision to leave spent fuel in the pool for several decades after the plant shuts down?” Buchanan asked.

“It is possible, but it's probably not likely given that the fuel wasn't designed to be sitting in the pool for decades,” Cloutier replied.

According to Entergy, Vermont Yankee's spent fuel pool holds spent fuel that is more than 40 years old.

In April, Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies warned the Legislature about the state of spent fuel at Vermont Yankee. The former senior policy adviser to President Clinton's Secretary of Energy told legislators that Vermont Yankee's 2,815 spent fuel assemblies in its spent fuel pool are greater than the entire inventory of all four damaged reactors in Fukushima, Japan, which totaled 2,724 spent fuel assemblies.

In its 41-year existence, Vermont Yankee has generated roughly 624 metric tons of spent fuel, which translates to 3,427 assemblies composed of 215,910 rods. More than 80 percent of that spent fuel is sitting in the site's spent fuel pool, Alvarez noted.

“For the past 30 years, nuclear safety research has consistently pointed out that severe accidents could occur at spent fuel pools, resulting in catastrophic consequences,” he told the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. “Spent fuel pools were originally designed for short-term cooling and are not required to have the same 'defense in depth' features as a reactor.”

Two weeks after Alvarez's testimony, Chris Miller, director of safety for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Region 1, told reporters that the Vermont Yankee plant underwent 5,500 hours of inspection and is safe.

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