Nuclear waste site could close before Vermont Yankee decommissions

Last modified: 10/7/2015 9:44:21 PM
MONTPELIER, Vt. — The federal permit for the west Texas facility that is supposed to take most of the low-level radioactive waste from the demolition of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant expires 20 years before Yankee is expected to be decommissioned.

Members of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission told Entergy Nuclear officials last week that the Texas waste facility’s permits expire in 2045.

The panel, which includes Vermont members, was in Montpelier on Thursday for its annual Vermont meeting. Entergy officials gave the group an update on its decommissioning plans, since most of the demolition debris from Vermont Yankee likely will be trucked to the west Texas facility.

That facility, owned by Waste Control Specialists, is in Andrews, Texas. It is one of four such facilities in the country.

Joseph Lynch, the head of government affairs for Entergy, told the panel the most conservative estimate of when the company would finally finish the demolition and cleanup of Yankee is 2067, which prompted a reminder from one of Vermont’s members of the panel, Richard Saudek of Montpelier.

“Are you aware that our license runs out in 2045?” Saudek asked.

“What are you going to do if the compact closes?” Saudek said, referring to the west Texas facility.

“We would have to update the cost estimates” of decommissioning, Lynch responded.

He had noted that decommissioning could start “as early as the 2030s” if there is enough money in the decommissioning trust fund.

Lynch said other plants where he had worked on decommissioning projects — Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe in Massachusetts — had all been decommissioned immediately, rather than put into what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls SAFSTOR, or cold storage, for decades.

The choice to put Yankee into cold storage was Entergy’s, and approved by the NRC.

Lynch seemed taken aback by the 2045 deadline but quickly said it would just force Entergy to recalculate the finances necessary for decommissioning.

The Texas waste authority formed a compact with Vermont more than 20 years ago to handle the low-level radioactive waste produced at Vermont Yankee, as well as at hospitals and research facilities. The state paid Texas $25 million to guarantee Vermont’s nuclear generator would have a place for its waste.

“Everybody wants to move it along,” Lynch said, adding that Entergy was in the business of generating electricity, not decommissioning plants.

He said Yankee was supposed to run until 2032, which would have given the trust fund decades to grow. Entergy decided in 2013 to close Yankee at the end of 2014 because of financial issues.

“You really think it’s going to take that long?” Saudek asked Lynch about the 2067 estimate. “It just seems implausible to me. You think people will really tolerate that plant sitting there?”

Entergy says one reason behind its long-term mothballing of Vermont Yankee rather than decommissioning it within 10 years, as most plants are, is to let much of the low-level radiation dissipate and reduce the amount of waste that must be trucked to Texas.

But another big reason is finances. Lynch told the panel Thursday that Entergy estimates the $600 million decommissioning trust fund will grow at an annual rate of 2 percent, and that it will cost $1.24 billion to decommission and clean up the Vernon reactor.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said the trust fund has been growing much faster than 2 percent and has added $100 million to its value from 2013 to 2014.

Recchia said the state is pushing Entergy to decommission Vermont Yankee much sooner than 2067.

Recchia said the NRC should stop giving nuclear power plant operators the SAFSTOR option and he will work with the NRC on that change.

Entergy, he said, is using the long-term cold storage option as a financial solution. Entergy has not contributed any money to the decommissioning trust fund, which it received when it bought the plant in 2002 from a consortium of New England utilities.

“The ... time frame is unrealistically long. We need to figure out a way to do this sooner,” Recchia said after the meeting. “I think SAFSTOR has now become a purely financial mechanism.”

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