Though there is not yet a central repository for the nation's spent nuclear fuel, the U.S. Department of Energy has begun planning for its removal from shut-down plants
by Mike Faher/The Commons For local residents and state officials, the central, painful reality of post–Vermont Yankee planning is that there is nowhere to take the plant’s spent nuclear fuel. That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been conversations about the eventual removal of that waste from the Vernon property. As part of its attempts to develop a nationwide plan for transporting nuclear waste to a centralized storage facility, the U.S. Department of Energy recently has made inquiries with Vermont officials and has scheduled a visit to Vermont Yankee.
All talks are preliminary, and the undertaking is complex: Broadly, the department is exploring the use of rail, heavy-duty trucks, and barges to move spent nuclear fuel from shut-down plants like Yankee.
But even at this stage of the game, a regional planner is asking Vermont officials to consider the interests and input of Windham County towns.
“We want to make sure that when the state is making comments to federal agencies about matters that affect our towns and the region, that they reach out to us so we can ensure our communities are in the loop,” Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany said.
Until the federal government makes good on its promise to build a central repository for the nation’s spent fuel, that fuel will have to stay at the nuclear plants that produced it.
In the case of Vermont Yankee, which ceased producing power Dec. 29, that means plant owner Entergy must store 3,880 spent-fuel assemblies on site indefinitely.
A majority of that fuel is stored in a pool inside Yankee’s reactor building. By the end of 2020, Entergy expects all of it to be in more-stable dry cask storage.
Those casks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. But at a recent meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, Vermont State Nuclear Engineer Tony Leshinskie disclosed that he has been in touch with federal officials about transportation planning for nuclear waste.
“We have been getting a number of inquiries coming through me from the Department of Energy and the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] in preparation for the eventual removal of spent fuel from the Vermont Yankee site,” Leshinskie said. “I realize that there is no national repository yet; however, the Department of Energy is at least in the planning stages for its transport.”
Leshinskie added that the federal government annually updates its plans for spent-fuel transportation. When the next revised report is released, he said, “this will be the first time that Vermont Yankee is noted” due to the plant’s recent deactivation.
The NRC will play a role in spent-fuel transportation by reviewing and certifying all canisters and casks that will be used, commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said. But the Department of Energy “would be responsible for the actual shipments,” he added.
Preparations in the beginning stages
It seems clear that any Yankee-related fuel-transportation planning is not very far along.
The Department of Energy confirmed that there are plans for a spring 2016 visit to Vermont Yankee, and the agency “has been in contact with Vermont state [officials] and utility staff to coordinate this visit.”
That was the only Vermont-specific information provided. Generally, though, the department noted several aspects of its preparations for transporting spent fuel nationwide, including:
• The department is working with contractor AREVA Federal Services to create prototype rail cars designed to meet performance specifications to carry high-level radioactive material.
Given that there is no destination for spent fuel at this point, the DOE says it “is currently looking into the infrastructure at each of the shut-down [plant] sites to see possible modes of transportation for spent nuclear fuel from each site to the nearest Class 1 railroad.”
The department did not specify any rail plans for Vermont Yankee. There is just three miles of Class 1 railroad in Vermont, and it is situated near the state’s northern border. But there is substantial Class 1 rail available in Massachusetts, just over the Vernon border.
• The department also is looking at barge and “heavy-haul truck” options for general transportation plans. Trucking might be an option in Vermont; Leshinskie said the state “was asked to provide its oversized truck transportation requirements” to the federal government.
• Additionally, the department says it is doing preliminary work on a “Transportation Planning Framework,” which is supposed to outline the approach the government will use in developing a “future, large-scale transportation system to remove spent nuclear fuel.”
The framework, the department says, “describes how stakeholder collaboration will contribute to the development of a safe, secure, and efficient transportation system.” And the department says representatives of “various state and tribal governments” already are participating in that process.
The question is how far that public participation will trickle down.
Given the intense scrutiny of moving spent fuel within Vermont Yankee’s borders, any plan to remove waste from the property — no matter how preliminary — surely will spur public concern and debate.
At the Sept. 24 VNDCAP meeting where Leshinskie mentioned his interactions with the federal government, Campany wondered why the state had not notified area towns or Windham Regional’s transportation planner.
Campany had this one request: “Please include the local governments.” In response, Leshinskie said that “this planning effort is really Department of Energy–driven.”
“So at this point, there wasn’t really an opportunity for consulting,” Leshinskie said. “This is more [to] find out what the Department of Energy wants to do. So we’re really at the very beginning of the process.”
Asked later about his concerns, Campany maintained that “this is not about meddling.” Rather, he wants to see a stronger link between federal, state, and local governments — especially on such a critical issue, and one that is new to Vermont.
“In many instances, the state’s interest and the local interest may be the same,” Campany said. “But there may be some points where interests diverge and, just as importantly, there may be local knowledge that should inform state positions.”
He added that “we don’t know what the DOE was asking the state for.”
“It sounded like the DOE was soliciting input on the movement of nuclear material, and logic would dictate that would be through the region and towns,” Campany said. “That’s what prompted my questions and concern.”