Vermont Yankee Verbatim
By George Schenk
August 10th, 2009
It is easy to get stuck in our own reinforcing circles of conservation. I wanted to hear what Vermont Yankee had to say about nuclear waste, so I gave them a call and spoke with the manager of communications, Larry Smith.
Larry Smith (L.S.) George Schenk (G.S.)
G.S. Good morning. Thank you for speaking with me.
L.S. You are welcome.
G.S. I’m doing research for an article on Vermont Yankee re-licensing; may I ask you a few questions?
G.S. Nuclear energy is a vast subject and so for the purposes of this article I would like to confine my questions to spent fuel disposal. Is that all right?
L.S. (Pause) Yeah (unenthusiastically).
G.S. First, a few background questions. What is the official name of the plant?
L.S. Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee.
G.S. And when did the plant come on line?
G.S. And what is its generating capacity?
L.S. 650 mega watts/hr, which represents about 1/3 of Vermont’s total usage.
G.S. How is the spent fuel stored and how much is currently stored on site?
L.S. When the fuel assemblies (rods) come out of the reactor they are very radioactive and very hot. They go directly into a stainless steel lined concrete water pool that is 30x40x40 feet deep. The spent fuel assemblies take about five years to cool. The pool can hold up to 3400 assemblies.
After the nuclear material has cooled the assemblies are transferred to high carbon stainless steel lined concrete dry casks which are stored on a special pad above ground.
There are currently about 2300 assemblies being stored in the water pool and another 340 assemblies in five dry casks.
G.S. Does the spent fuel currently being stored on site represent all of the nuclear waste produced since the plant went on line in 1972?
L.S. Yes. Every ounce.
G.S What is the useful life expectancy of the dry casks?
L.S. 100 years, minimum.
G.S. At current rates, how many years of onsite storage capacity remain at Vermont Yankee?
L.S. There is enough storage capacity to hold all material through the end of our renewal request period (2032).
G.S. How long does the spent fuel stay radio active?
L.S. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
G.S. I’ve read that it could be as long as 100,000 years.
L.S. Yes, it could be that long.
G.S. Who owns or is responsible for the spent fuel?
L.S. The U.S. department of Energy. Years ago the D.O.E. promised the nuclear energy industry that it would have a final disposal site in place by 1998. The U.S. government has failed its promise to us. The industry has contributed over 24 billion dollars to the federal government to support a final disposal solution. We do not want this spent nuclear material on the banks of the Connecticut river any more than anyone else does. In the mean time, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to us, we are being responsible stewards of the waste until the government meets its obligation and fulfills its promise. We are suing the government to recover expenses associated with dry cask storage and to force a solution.
G.S. Why has the government not met its obligation to your industry?
L.S. The problem is political.
G.S. Is this a N.I.M.B.Y (not in my back yard) problem?
G.S. What is the solution?
L.S. Deep geologic sequestration. The government needs to force a solution that may not be in everyone’s interest but is in the interest of the society at large. If the National Nuclear Waste Repository was located in a remote dessert, in say Nevada or Utah or New Mexico then it wouldn’t be in anyone’s back yard.
In addition, in almost all other countries that have nuclear power plants spent fuel reprocessing technology is employed. This technology can reduce nuclear waste by up to 90% and recapture reusable fissionable material. We wouldn’t be in this mess with so much nuclear waste if this country had developed reprocessing technology.
G.S. Why didn’t we?
L.S. A byproduct of the technology is plutonium and the Carter administration (1977-1981) felt it was in conflict with the 1980 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and a security risk. It is widely done; it is a risk we can manage and is really a non-issue.
G.S. What do other countries do with the 10% of the remaining material?
L.S. They put it in specially designed casks and either store it above ground at secure facilities or dump it into deep sea trenches.
G.S. Is there anything else you would like people to know about Vermont Yankee?
L.S. Our re-licensing request has become a polarized political issue. Our application is now in its fourth year. The Nuclear Regularity Commission (NRC) has reviewed the plant and operations and believes we should be allowed to continue to operate. NRC safety reviews are rigorous and almost continuous. We have undertaken a vertical audit as prescribed by the state on the plant’s vital components and physical condition and there are no issues. We have passed a reliability audit. The state of Vermont can count on our power.
The current power purchase agreement which extends to 2012 is for 4.2 cents/kwh. The last thing the state legislature has requested from us is pricing for the next 20 years. This is not easy. There are many variables. State senator Shumlin has asked us for an answer by November 1st. We will all be much better off with a well thought through deal than one hastily derived at to meet an arbitrary deadline. We are working on it but this kind of analysis takes time.
There are 103 nuclear power plants in the United States that have reliably provided safe, affordable, and carbon-free electricity for a long time. We all need a real answer to nuclear waste.
G.S. Thanks for your time and thoughtful answers to my many questions.
L.S. You are welcome.