Unbuilding a nuclear power plant
The main reactor building at the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

Unbuilding a nuclear power plant

As Vermont Yankee comes apart piece by piece, future site use and waste storage remain in question

VERNON — Rain and winds pelt disused security towers. A long strip of yellow caution tape twists on the ground below, dragging through shallow puddles.

From across the mostly empty parking lot, a horn blares. A yellow rail car pushes a heavy flatbed, breaking through the sense of desolation as it trundles down the rail spur that the newest owner of the former Vermont Yankee nuclear power station, NorthStar, installed to haul radioactive waste to a repository in Texas.

A worker opens a gate, and the car rolls through, traveling toward the Connecticut River side of the property, where NorthStar employees and subcontractors cut apart the 47-year-old, 650-megawatt boiling-water reactor.

The reactor, and other radiological waste, will be loaded like puzzle pieces into special shipping containers, covered in concrete, and hauled by rail to Texas. Some higher-level waste will remain on site, along with the plant's spent fuel rods.

During an Oct. 17 press tour of the site, the company's CEO, Scott State, said the project is ahead of schedule.

State explained that NorthStar's contractual commitment for completing decommissioning is 2030. That date is documented in a memorandum of understanding signed in March 2018 by representatives of both Entergy and NorthStar and by interested parties recognized in the regulatory framework surrounding the sale, approved by the Vermont Public Utilities Commission that December.

The company's target date, however, is 2026.

“I think we'll be done here well before 2026,” State said. “The amount of work that's being done here is phenomenal; we've done a lot of work here in 10 months.”

Early progress

State said NorthStar expects to clean the site to a level suitable for industrial use, noting that the company supports development of the site, but “we are not the developers.”

State knows of one private citizen who has approached the town of Vernon about using the site. He has also heard rumors of other potential future uses, including a solar field, a data center, and a micro-grid.

“We're staying neutral on all that,” State said. “Our commitment is ultimately that the local community benefits economically from the site.”

He said it's unlikely that NorthStar will “sell” the site to the town. Instead, he said the company will transfer the property for $1.

“We will leave a site that is very developable, but we're not the developers,” he said.

Depending on the results of future radiological surveys, NorthStar might keep the plant's administrative building intact for future use.

Another question mark hanging over the plant is the future of the spent waste now stored in more than 50 canisters onsite.

Until the federal government creates a permanent storage facility, the waste will sit on its ISFSI (independent spent fuel storage installation) pad on the banks of the Connecticut River.

State said the government's delay has spurred some companies, including NorthStar, to consider creating their own private waste storage facilities.

The deconstruction activity represents a major departure from the plans that were shaping up prior to the surprise purchase of the defunct plant.

NorthStar's purchase of VY from Entergy last year was met with a sigh of relief from many community members concerned about the timetable for the plant's decommissioning.

Entergy had proposed a timeline that would have followed a federal protocol called SAFSTOR, which would have entailed mothballing it until 2067, according to the company's 2014 Post Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report.

NorthStar's accelerated decommissioning plans, however, will allow the site to return to economic use by 2026, if not sooner.

“We just brought certainty to the process,” State said.

A new skyline

Corey Daniels, who has worked at VY since the 1990s and now serves as NorthStar's VY ISFSI senior manager, said that VY is NorthStar's “flagship” in decommissioning commercial nuclear plants.

The license transfer from Entergy to NorthStar was the first such transfer from a plant operator to a decommissioning company, he said.

Daniels pointed out a long chain-link fence and massive concrete blocks, the plant's original security boundary.

A sign of the changing times, a large portion of the fence has been removed and is bisected by the parking lot and refurbished rail spur.

Many of the concrete blocks will be used in dismantling the reactor and have been moved near its building in preparation for their new role.

NorthStar plans to move any waste via rail, ultimately deemed a safer alternative than truck, an earlier consideration. As a result, the company built the spur and refurbished some train tracks already at the site.

Daniels added that rail is more efficient and, “by most standards that are available, it's about 11 times safer than traveling by truck.”

“It's much cheaper,” he added.

Pointing to where the plant's cooling towers once stood, State said the “skyline has changed significantly” since NorthStar took over VY.

“We invested a substantial amount of money on infrastructure and building things here to take it all down,” State said.

“We've done a lot of work in 10 months,” said State, who estimates the project's overall cost to run $550 million.

He said that so far, workers haven't encountered “any big surprises” while dismantling the plant.

So far, the approximately 100 employees and subcontractors still working at the site have dismantled some administration buildings. With the exception of the spent-fuel canisters, the site's security level has dropped from an active power plant to that of industrial level.

On this day, subcontractors from Orano USA were working in the reactor building, removing large pieces that are then loaded into large canisters and prepped for transport.

NorthStar has contracted the company to dismantle the reactor vessel. Other major subcontractors, announced with the company's acquisition of VY, are Waste Control Specialists (waste management, packaging, transport, and disposal) and Burns & McDonnell (engineering and regulatory support).

According to State, NorthStar has taken multiple steps to ensure a strong working relationship between the remaining VY employees and the NorthStar employees. He said the efforts have paid off.

The company in general, and the decommissioning process as a whole are benefiting from the VY employees' institutional knowledge and the NorthStar employees' expertise with decommissioning.

“Any time you get into a situation like this, you're always concerned with the culture of the people that are here, and the people you are bringing,” said State.

NorthStar has had to blend work cultures on previous projects. State attributed the successful blending of work cultures at VY to NorthStar's “inherent process.”

He wouldn't go into specifics but the model included things like highlighting what the employees have in common, for example, their work ethic.

Private storage?

Only the spent waste is considered high-level nuclear waste, said State. And as long as the waste - the property of NorthStar - remains at the VY site, the company will be there to secure it, in compliance with federal law.

State explained that the federal Department of Energy (DOE) is obligated to transport the fuel to a long-term storage facility. In the meantime, NorthStar is obligated to secure the fuel.

The DOE, because it hasn't established a storage site, is responsible for paying NorthStar for securing the waste.

This has led the company to consider opening its own storage facility.

State said a number of private nuclear waste storage projects have been considered over the past decade. One of NorthStar's sister companies, Waste Control Specialists, proposed such a project a few years ago, said State.

Such private companies are “trying to come up with a solution to deal with spent nuclear fuel that's now stranded at multiple sites around the country,” State said.

He said that, politically, creating private sites is controversial. Building such storage facilities means moving spent fuel and confronting the DOE's inability to follow through on its obligation to build a “deep geological” storage facility, such as Yucca Mountain was intended to be.

Ultimately the issue will be decided by several entities, including the state of Texas, which is already the site of radiological waste from the VY project.

VY is the only site in the United States that is in active decommissioning where the spent fuel is owned by a private company, according to State.

According to State, the benefit of creating a private storage facility is that the site could house the spent fuel currently stranded at multiple sites in one place.

“You have one set of security at one location,” he said. “Over a fairly short period of time, it becomes a lot less expensive to secure what was at 70 locations.”

The federal licensing of a storage facility is similar to licensing an ISFSI pad but bigger, State said.

“It's the government that will save money and we will just manage the site,” State said of the potential project.

Potential ahead

Entergy shut down the plant, which came on line in 1972, in December 2014. All fuel was removed from the reactor the following year.

The company announced plans to sell the plant to NorthStar in 2016.

If all goes well, VY may be the first of many nuclear decommissioning projects for NorthStar, which has a 30-year history of environmental services and building deconstruction.

State said the company believes it can decommission six plants at a time.

“If you look at it like we do, it's a six-year project in three phases,” he said. “So you could have two projects essentially in each phase with two work crews.”

State said the country is approaching an “uptick” in the number of nuclear plants nearing the end of their license.

“So there's a steady stream for us, given these are five-to-six-year projects, for at least two decades,” he said. “It's good business if you do it right.”

“Right now, our objective is to continue getting work done, make sure we do it safely, staying on schedule, and staying on budget,” State said.

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