NRC signs off on Vermont Yankee fuel move

Agency says storage of radioactive materials is proceeding safely

VERNON — While Vermont Yankee's $143 million fuel storage project still has a long way to go, federal inspectors like what they've seen so far.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors have visited the Vernon plant to observe the transfer of radioactive spent fuel into more secure storage. Federal officials also have interviewed workers at the site and reviewed records.

The bottom line, the NRC says in an Aug. 16 report, is that “no findings of safety significance were identified.”

Entergy wants to sell Vermont Yankee to a New York-based decommissioning company, but administrators first need to transfer all of the plant's spent fuel into sealed casks - also called “dry cask” storage.

That's a major undertaking. Vermont Yankee generated power for 42 years before its December 2014 shutdown, and most of the plant's 3,880 spent fuel assemblies remain in a cooling pool inside the reactor building.

Vermont Yankee has taken out a line of credit to pay for the $143 million fuel project, which includes construction of a new storage pad; purchase of 45 casks; and loading fuel into those containers.

It's been described as “a very slow, deliberate process,” but Entergy administrators expect to have the fuel move done by the third quarter of 2018.

NRC recently visited the plant twice, on May 30-31 and from July 17 to July 21. While the federal agency still performs regular inspections of Vermont Yankee, the sole purpose of these visits was to “determine whether [spent fuel storage] activities were conducted safely and in accordance with NRC requirements,” the commission's report says.

At the end of May, an NRC inspector observed construction of the spent fuel storage pad.

That concrete pad went through an extensive state permitting process and is designed with the long-term, high-security storage of radioactive material in mind. During a recent tour of the site, Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Director Jack Boyle declared that “it's not just concrete - it's engineered concrete.”

The NRC says it is satisfied with that engineering, having observed rebar and formwork installation as well as concrete pouring and subsequent testing. “All tested samples,” the NRC's inspection report says, “met the acceptance criteria.”

NRC inspectors returned in July to evaluate the fuel move, which is being handled by Florida-based contractor Holtec International under Entergy's supervision.

Federal officials watched spent fuel assemblies being loaded into a canister inside the reactor building, then observed the slow transport of that fuel to the storage pad. Officials also watched the plant's radiation protection technicians and reviewed radiation data.

Additionally, NRC inspectors say they toured the concrete pad and confirmed that plant personnel are meeting monitoring requirements for stored fuel.

The NRC inspectors were watching the loading and transport of Vermont Yankee's 17th cask. When the project is finished, there will be a total of 58 casks.

Those casks will remain in Vernon until the federal Department of Energy develops a longer-term storage plan for the nation's spent nuclear fuel.

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