Vermont has voice in national debate on nuclear waste

As feds seek a strategy for finding nuclear waste storage sites, regional advocates say Vernon and Vermont should play a key role in that discussion due to the large inventory of spent fuel stashed at Vermont Yankee

BRATTLEBORO — On June 2 at a Boston hotel, a team of officials and experts spent hours dissecting a vexing question: What's the best way to find a new home for the nation's nuclear waste?

The inquiry is vitally important for Windham County and the town of Vernon, where Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel will be stored for the foreseeable future.

So the region's diverse representation at the Boston meeting included a Windham County planner; members of a Brattleboro anti-nuclear group; and employees of a Massachusetts-based institute lobbying for nuclear host communities like Vernon.

All had a chance to chime in on the U.S. Department of Energy's efforts to develop a new strategy to find communities willing to take nuclear waste. While the results of those efforts are still uncertain and are years away, those with an interest in getting spent fuel out of Vermont say they're happy the conversation is happening.

“It's an indication that the Department of Energy is taking this seriously,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.

“Bottom line, we just cannot expect the town of Vernon and the state of Vermont to turn that [Vermont Yankee] facility into a long-term storage site,” Welch added. “There are some dangers associated with that, and it impedes the ability to reuse that facility.”

The federal government's failure to develop a centralized repository for spent nuclear fuel has caused environmental and financial problems nationwide.

Nuclear operators like Vermont Yankee owner Entergy have been successfully suing the Department of Energy to recover some of the cost of keeping the fuel at plant sites, and department officials acknowledged in materials prepared for the Boston meeting that “taxpayer liabilities are large and growing.”

A Department of Energy team visited Vermont Yankee last month to begin planning for the eventual removal of the plant's 3,880 spent fuel assemblies. But without somewhere to take those assemblies, the discussion is largely theoretical.

Politics stalled efforts to build a waste repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain; in 2009, the Department of Energy suspended work at that site. Now, the department is focused on finding interim storage sites, with an emphasis on moving spent fuel from shut-down reactors like Vermont Yankee.

The department's June 2 public meeting in Boston was one of a series of sessions being held around the country as federal officials try to develop a “consent-based siting” process for finding suitable nuclear waste storage facilities that have community support. The idea is to ensure that local, state and tribal governments “have a say in determining where and how waste-management facilities are sited,” federal officials wrote.

It's a complicated discussion, and a lengthy one, too. “The realization is that this is years away,” said Kate O'Connor, chairwoman of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel. “But you have to start somewhere, and if you don't even begin to have the conversation, you're not going to move forward.”

The Vermont advisory panel was one of several New England groups that last year joined forces to write to Congress, pressing for a spent fuel solution. But advocates for a fuel move also want to be sure the federal government gets it right, both for the communities now hosting radioactive material and those that may take it.

“Given the decades of failure of federal policymakers to establish a permanent repository, sites that are intended to be interim storage facilities should be evaluated for their capacity to serve as a permanent repository should history continue to repeat itself,” said Chris Campany, executive director of the Brattleboro-based Windham Regional Commission.

Campany testified at the Department of Energy's Boston meeting and is pushing for better conversations between the federal government and towns like Vernon. One of his ideas is to establish an organized group of nuclear host communities to advise the government on issues such as radioactive-waste management.

“The idea would be that the host communities for nuclear plants would serve as a stakeholder group for discussions with not only federal agencies, but also with those communities that would voluntarily accept spent fuel and high-level nuclear waste,” Campany said.

He envisions a “cadre of well-informed local stakeholders who are most directly affected by plant closures,” and Campany said the group's work could extend beyond the nuclear waste issue. Given a recent wave of announced nuclear plant closures, the need for such an organization “will become all the more relevant,” Campany said.

The Amherst, Mass.-based Institute for Nuclear Host Communities is one early attempt to collectively represent the interests of nuclear towns such as Vernon. The institute grew out of Vermont Yankee's closure and is participating in the Department of Energy's consent-based siting discussion.

“I think this is a great process, and it has to happen,” said Jennifer Stromsten, the institute's program director, who testified at the June 2 session.

One of the institute's arguments is that the Department of Energy, in developing a “fair” process to find nuclear waste storage sites, must also engage with communities that already are dealing with that material.

“These locales have not benefitted from such a process,” institute leaders wrote in a letter to DOE. “Nuclear power-plant host communities became unwitting hosts to spent fuel decades ago at a time when there was a reasonable expectation that the spent fuel would be removed from the location in a timely fashion.”

That spent fuel now has become “a distraction, and a long-term impediment, to communities' efforts at moving forward after the plant ceases to be productive,” the institute's letter says.

The anti-nuclear group New England Coalition also is weighing in with the Department of Energy. Clay Turnbull, a trustee and staffer who participated in the Boston meeting, said the Brattleboro-based coalition is advocating both for current nuclear host communities and for future storage communities.

Closer to home, Turnbull is wondering about “how the waste gets from Vermont to the middle of the desert somewhere.” Officials have said rail looks like the preferred method of removing spent fuel from Vermont Yankee, but Turnbull questions whether that's any safer than highway transport.

And for those living in areas that may accept nuclear waste in the future, Turnbull wonders “who will bring a counter-perspective to the [government's] proposals? Who will be the watchdog, so to speak?”

“There's a sense, I think, of moral responsibility and accountability [for those communities],” Turnbull said. “There's a sense of stewardship that we feel. We don't want to see someone else get screwed.”

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