VY plant draws local fire
ADDISON COUNTY — A New England nonprofit opposed to nuclear proliferation on Monday warned a group of 40 Addison County residents and legislators about the imminent dangers surrounding the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and its possible closure next year.
A panel of advocates from Citizens Awareness Network, or CAN, highlighted what they view as the shortcomings of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), problems surrounding radioactive waste storage, uncertainty over who would foot the bill for the reactor’s cleanup and ambiguity on the state’s ability to regulate the plant’s decommissioning process.
The public forum took place as a federal judge readied to preside over a hearing this Thursday and Friday in the suit by Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp. against the state of Vermont over the future of the Vernon nuclear plant.
While the NRC in March renewed Entergy’s license to run Vermont Yankee until 2032, the state of Vermont did not issue the nuclear plant a certificate of public good. Under Vermont law, Yankee must close in March 2012. But Entergy is suing the state because the corporation believes the NRC has the ultimate authority to regulate nuclear power plants.
The panel forum, held at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, included CAN Executive Director Deb Katz of Massachusetts, CAN Vermont organizer Chris Williams of Hancock, and former Vermont legislator and current CAN lobbyist Bob Stannard of Manchester
One thing that Katz said the state could do to prevent disaster when Vermont Yankee is dismantled is to set stricter standards for cleanup. Katz explained that while the NRC currently allows 25 millirems of radiation be left on site after cleanup, states like Massachusetts require a stricter standard of 10 millirems. Vermont, she pointed out, permits more than twice as much radiation as its neighbor to the south.
KNOCKS ON THE NRC
But the NRC is the primary nuclear regulator in the U.S. and Stannard explained how he thought the federal government was dealing with the Vermont Yankee situation.
“Your NRC … is the federal regulatory agency designed to look out for your best interests,” said Stannard. “What they do is they weaken the safety rules. So when the safety rules become too cumbersome for the industry, instead of holding their feet to the fire, they move the goal posts.
“It’s nothing short of remarkable … just how patently corrupt this entire (nuclear regulatory) process is. What can you do?” he asked citizens on Monday. “You should be calling your representatives, your congressional delegation, to tell them what you think.”
Fed up with what he sees as collusion between the nuclear power industry and its regulatory agency, Stannard spotlighted a recent example of such activity. NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in March that the commission would maintain a neutral stance over the Entergy-Vermont legal dispute. Last week, however, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s office got wind that the NRC furtively asked the U.S. Justice Department to support Entergy’s case.
“I was deeply disturbed that the commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission today refused to make public what, as I understand it, was a 3-to-2 vote recommending that the Department of Justice take Entergy’s side in their lawsuit against Vermont,” said Sanders in a news release last week.
When Sanders questioned NRC commissioners at a hearing last week they refused to say whether they had contacted the Justice Department.
At Monday’s forum, Stannard said this lawsuit is about more than just Vermont; it will impact the entire U.S.
“What Entergy is afraid of and the rest of the nuclear industry is afraid of is states having a lot of say over the nuclear power industry,” he said. “If (Entergy) wins this case, the states’ ability to participate in almost anything regarding nuclear power will be greatly diminished and that will be a tragedy not just for Vermont, but every state in this country.”
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is supporting Vermont in the lawsuit because, as Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley put it, the case will have an enormous effect on the way that her state can regulate nuclear power plants.
If Entergy loses the case and Vermont Yankee is decommissioned next year, Katz said Vermonters still have something to worry about, because, she said, NRC regulation during the decommissioning would be a bit lax. When the plant is operating, she said, an NRC resident inspector is always on site.
“After it’s been shuttered and it’s in the process of decommissioning there is no NRC resident inspector. There are inspectors that make periodic visits, but there’s no one there all the time to monitor what’s going on to ensure that the decommissioning is going on safely,” she said.
Frustrated with what he views as the NRC’s unwillingness to keep the public safe, Stannard wants the agency shut down.
“I haven’t said this before, but I’m saying it now — we should be abolishing the NRC. That entire organization should cease to exist and we should find another way to truly regulate the nuclear industry,” he said.
NUCLEAR WASTE STORAGE
Another red flag that CAN officials raised was the storage of nuclear waste.
Vermont Yankee currently houses 2,935 spent-fuel rods sitting in a 40-foot diameter pool of water encased by 10 feet of solid concrete and rebar next to the nuclear reactor, said Entergy spokesman Larry Smith.
According to CAN, this situation presents a problem.
“The truth is there is no good solution for high-level waste, there are only bad solutions and worse ones. In the short-run the best thing that can happen is to get Entergy to get the fuel out of the pool,” said Katz. “The fuel in the pool is dangerous and it is subject to terrorism or an accident.” The nuclear spill at Fokoshima, Japan, came from fuel stored in very similar construction.
Katz favors dry cask storage. The NRC explains that after at least one year of cooling, spent fuel can be transported from a pool to a steel cask.
“The casks are typically steel cylinders that are either welded or bolted closed. The steel cylinder provides a leak-tight containment of the spent fuel. Each cylinder is surrounded by additional steel, concrete, or other material to provide radiation shielding to workers and members of the public. Some of the cask designs can be used for both storage and transportation,” reads a statement from the NRC on dry cask storage.
Entergy’s Smith said that Vermont Yankee currently has five dry casks loaded with 68 spent-fuel rods each. In the upcoming weeks, Entergy plans to move another 200 rods from the spent-fuel pool to dry cask storage.
Another issue is the amount of money Entergy has socked away to pay for decommissioning Yankee. The NRC requires nuclear plants to have a decommission fund to take care of the cost of dismantling a plant.
“When the NRC reviewed Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning fund and six others … they found that there was not sufficient funds — that it had slipped below the minimum acceptable amount — so Entergy put $40 million into that fund,” said Entergy spokesman Smith.
How much total money is in that fund?
Smith was uncertain at the time of the interview, but CAN speculates that it won’t be enough money to shield taxpayers from the extra costs of cleanup.
“(The state) cannot require what Entergy puts into the decommission fund,” said Katz. “This is where federal preemption comes in. The feds determine how much money has to be in the fund. The state does have power, for example, to require that Entergy have a fully funded high-level waste fund to move the high-level waste in the reactor, like the Fokoshima reactor… into dry cask storage and to require that they have all the money in an escrow account … which would be about $250 million (or the cost of dismantlement).”
CAN is particularly worried that when Vermont Yankee is decommissioned, Entergy will not be held accountable for cleaning up the mess nor paying for cleanup if someone else does it, leaving Vermont taxpayers with the bill.
“What the state can do separate from the decommissioning fund is … have money in (a high-level waste fund) available at the time of Vermont Yankee’s closure so that the state can insure that the money will be there in the future.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org.