BRATTLEBORO — A decision earlier this week by the full Nuclear Regulatory Commission could mean that Vermont Yankee’s high-level radioactive waste stays in Vernon on the banks of the Connecticut River for the next 200 years.
The NRC voted Tuesday to approve a generic environmental impact statement dealing with the issue of storage of high-level waste, which said that long-term storage of waste at nuclear power plants was safe, if handled properly. At the same time the commission lifted its 2012 moratorium on approval of new nuclear power plants.
The NRC rule, which won’t go into effect for 30 days, would allow nuclear power plants to leave spent nuclear fuel in their large spent fuel pools indefinitely,” or in passive, air-cooled casks for 100 years, and then put the high-level radioactive waste into new casks for another 100 years.
Robert Williams, spokesman for Entergy Nuclear in Vermont, said Thursday that the NRC ruling would not affect Entergy’s plans for Vermont Yankee, which is slated to shut down in four months at the end of December.
Once the Yankee plant is shut down, the fuel in the reactor core will be transferred to the spent fuel pool in early 2015, where it must continue to cool for five years. The company has already applied to the Public Service Board for permission to expand its dry-cask storage facility, which is north of the reactor building.
Entergy plans on emptying the thousands of fuel rods currently in its spent fuel pool and transferring the fuel to the concrete and steel casks. That transfer is expected to be completed by 2021. After that, Yankee is expected to be put into long-term mothballing or “SAFSTOR” for about 60 years before its dismantling begins.
At the heart of the waste storage problem is there is no national waste facility: In 2010, the Obama administration cancelled the $15 billion Yucca Mountain project in the desert north of Las Vegas, a move that was viewed as a political thank you to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.
This week’s ruling came after the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the NRC to get it to stop licensing new nuclear power plants until there was an environmental study about the long-term risks of storing the high-level radioactive waste, which can remain dangerous for thousands of years.
Raymond Shadis, senior technical adviser for the anti-nuclear group The New England Coalition, said Thursday that the coalition was working with other national environment groups to appeal the NRC decision. He said the first step, rather than head to court, is to ask the NRC to reconsider aspects of its decision.
Despite having more than a dozen public hearings on the issue, he said, the commission ignored the public’s concerns.
Shadis said that the NRC, without a national permanent storage facility, really had no option. “They locked themselves into that position years ago,” he said.
“It’s going to be a long time before any kind of permanent storage site is built,” he said, noting that even if Republicans regain control of the U.S. Senate during the mid-term elections in November, bringing Yucca Mountain back into the political and environmental discussion would take years.
He said that when Maine Yankee shut down in 1996 and decommissioned, and its spent fuel placed in the concrete and steel casks, everything was written down as well as videotaped by the company because few believe that a permanent solution was coming anytime soon.
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