VY cleanup partner stops work on Texas nuke dump

VERNON — Citing financial problems, a partner in the proposed cleanup of Vermont Yankee has suspended its plans for a high-level nuclear-waste storage facility in Texas.

But that development apparently won't jeopardize Waste Control Specialists' role in the accelerated decommissioning of the shut-down Vernon nuclear plant.

That's because Waste Control Specialists still will be able to accept and dispose of the majority of radioactive waste at Vermont Yankee. Anything beyond that was never part of the decommissioning plan here, said Scott State of NorthStar Group Services, the company that wants to buy and clean up Yankee.

“We don't expect this to have any impact whatsoever on our plans,” said State, NorthStar's chief executive officer. “We still have full confidence in [Waste Control Specialists] as a partner for the Vermont Yankee project and look forward to continuing to do business with them.”

In spite of State's assurances, some maintain that Waste Control Specialists' troubles are evidence of possible flaws in the proposed Vermont Yankee project.

“It just actually shows the vulnerability of the corporations that want to do this, if anything,” said Deb Katz, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Citizens Awareness Network.

Cleanup by 2030

Entergy, which stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014, is seeking to sell the plant and its decommissioning trust fund to NorthStar.

The New York-based company says it can clean up most of the site by 2030 and possibly as early as 2026. That's several decades sooner than Entergy had been planning.

The sale is subject to approval by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Vermont Public Service Board.

In making his pitch for NorthStar's purchase, State has touted a “dream team” of partners for the Vermont Yankee project. Those partners include Waste Control Specialists, which operates a disposal site for low-level radioactive waste in Andrews, Texas.

That site is part of what's known as the Texas Compact, an multistate arrangement ensuring that there's a place to get rid of Vermont's low-level radioactive waste. Vermont Yankee sent its first shipment of low-level waste to Waste Control Specialists' Texas facility in 2012.

And there will be much more to come as the plant is decommissioned.

State, in testimony filed with the Public Service Board late last year, anticipated “removal of significant volumes of waste” from Vernon but assured state officials that Vermont Yankee “enjoys the lowest available rates for disposal” due to the Texas Compact.

However, low-level waste doesn't include Vermont Yankee's spent nuclear fuel.

That high-level waste must be stored in sealed casks at the site for the foreseeable future, until the federal government - which has statutory responsibility for such material - figures out what to do with it.

There is currently no central repository for spent nuclear fuel. A proposed long-term repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has stalled due to opposition, though the Trump administration has signaled support for reviving the project.

'The stars are aligning'

Waste Control Specialists recently had been seeking to fill that disposal gap by proposing to build a “consolidated interim storage facility” in Texas for high-level waste including spent fuel.

And that's been cited repeatedly as a potential virtue of the NorthStar/Vermont Yankee project. For example, Entergy mentioned Waste Control Specialists' high-level storage application when announcing the NorthStar sale deal last November.

And at an April 6 public hearing in Vernon, Guy Page of the Vermont Energy Partnership said it was “really exciting” that Waste Control Specialists might be able to take Vermont Yankee's spent fuel at some point.

“So the stars are aligning, I think, much more than they were a couple years ago, for the high-level waste also to be taken out of Vermont,” Page said.

But those hopes were dealt a blow on April 18 when Rod Baltzer, Waste Control Specialists' president and chief executive officer, wrote a letter asking the NRC to “temporarily suspend” its review of the company's application for a high-level waste dump.

Baltzer cited a “magnitude of financial burdens.” The cost of the NRC review now is estimated at $7.5 million, “which is significantly higher than we originally anticipated,” he wrote.

Also, he wrote that Waste Control Specialists “has faced significant operating losses in each of its operating years, and the cost of actively pursuing the project only serves to increase those losses.”

Baltzer wrote that he still expects to move forward with the storage site application “at the earliest possible opportunity” after his company's sale to EnergySolutions, another disposal company.

But that sale isn't a sure thing: The federal government has sued to stop it on antitrust grounds.

No matter what happens to the proposed high-level storage proposal in Texas, NorthStar is standing by Waste Control Specialists.

In an April 26 interview, State said Waste Control's now-suspended NRC application was filed “well after we started the process of looking at Vermont Yankee.” The company was chosen as a decommissioning partner, State added, because it owns the “de facto disposal facility” for low-level radioactive waste.

Separate projects

Waste Control Specialists' pursuit of a spent-fuel storage facility “of course has potential benefits and certainly could benefit Vermont Yankee, but it's not part of any overall strategy that we have,” State said. “That project is completely separate from their [low-level] waste disposal operation.”

Page, who supports the NorthStar sale, also doesn't see the Waste Control Specialists news as cause for concern. A place to send Vermont Yankee's spent fuel, he said, would only have been the icing on the cake.

“The cake, even if it doesn't have the icing, is still pretty darn good,” Page said. “The main thing here is the potential nine-year decommissioning [by NorthStar] and site usability by 2026.”

Not everyone agrees. There have been many questions about the feasibility of NorthStar's plan, and skeptics like Katz question the viability of the decommissioning company and its partners in taking on a first-of-its-kind nuclear cleanup project.

Given the regulatory and financial troubles of Waste Control Specialists, “there are really questions about what they're going to be able to do,” she said.

Against the backdrop of the proposed Vermont Yankee sale, there's also a debate about the safest and most responsible way to handle the plant's spent fuel.

At the public hearing in Vernon, some suggested the waste should stay in Vermont.

That's in part due to concerns about transporting it by rail, but some also question the ethics of making Yankee's spent fuel someone else's problem.

Katz's group - along with a representative of Beyond Nuclear and a Sierra Club member from Texas - participated in a series of public events to discuss that topic. The tour included a May 6 meeting in Brattleboro.

Katz said the latest news about Waste Control Specialists in Texas doesn't change the substance of those discussions, given that there also has been talk about a high-level waste disposal site across the border in New Mexico.

“Whether it happens in Texas or it happens in New Mexico ... the issue of targeting that area is still on the table,” she said.

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