Update on Vernon, VT Nuclear Waste Storage Debate

All: An account of Sept. 20 PSB meeting follows. An edited version may appear in the Montague Reporter. PSB member David Coen said it is important for people to write letters and get their neighbors to write letters so the Board (two lawyers who really are, absurdly, the Court of last Resort) may hear directly from the public and know their concerns. Plase contact them and let them know you are watching what they do, and are aware of the implications for generations of Vermonters and their neighbors. Address follows, and below that, a report on the hearing.

Vermont Public Service Board
112 State Street
Drawer 20
Montpelier, VT 05620-2701

Phone: 802 828-2358
OR email: clerk@psb.state.vt.us
Please do it. Thanks, Sally

“No other generation has left a more dangerous legacy to the 5000 following
generations” • Colin Blasej, Windham

The task of Solomon: Two Men to Decide on Vermont’s Future Radioactive Waste
Storage Facility

The VT Public Service Board, court of last resort, listened for 3 hours to heated public testimony Tuesday evening on Entergy Nuclear’s proposal to build a dry cask storage repository for highly radioactive nuclear waste on the bank of the CT River. That is, the remaining two members of the Board listened. Board Chairman, James Volz, recused himself from the case last Friday after his apparent conflict of interest was questioned by the New England Coalition. Volz’s previous job advocating in favor of the nuclear waste facility as a lawyer for the VT Dept. of Public Service made him appear less than impartial.

Citizens reminded remaining Board Members David Coen and John Burke of the awful responsibility they bear: they must decide on the future disposition of the approximately 640 metric tons of high level radioactive spent fuel currently sitting in the VY fuel pool, and whether to approve Entergy’s petition for a dry cask storage system in order to continue operating beyond 2008, when the fuel pool will be full. They must decide whether to grant a certificate of public good to Entergy’s request for dry casks, and must decide not on the basis of safety or security, but solely on economic and environmental grounds. As Andy Davis of Brattleboro pointed out, “Entergy is playing a careful game and we are just pawns in it. The dry cask hearing has great relevance to the Uprate and the relicensing issues. But the public can’t discuss those, and you can’t rule on safety. The question of permitting dry casks or not permitting them is obviously a false debate, it’s a smoke screen. I hope you won’t be the next pawns in their game.”

The issue for Davis and many at the hearing is that when Entergy leaves VT, the waste will still be there. Davis requested the PSB allow only enough casks to reach the end of VY’s license, and only after a thorough independent safety assessment.

VT Senator Jeanette White echoed the public’s frustrations about the process, and cautioned the PSB: “We (the Legislature) abdicated our responsibility. We had the opportunity to focus on safety. We didn’t do it. We focused on an economic bribe,” she testified. “Now you must do what we didn’t do: evaluate the long-term economic impact, the long term safety considerations we are faced with. As a nation we are borrowing against our children’s future. We should not do that as a state.”

The efforts of the VT House Natural Resources and Energy Committee to craft a rigorous set of conditions for long term nuclear waste storage on the banks of the CT River were derailed last Spring when House and Senate leadership, the Public Service Department, and Entergy met behind closed doors to craft a deal more to the industry’s liking. A Memorandum of Understanding was substituted for binding legislation, and a fee to ensure Yankee’s ownership of the risks for every year the waste remained in VT was reduced to a smaller fee of limited duration, and tied to the controversial Uprate. Both the House and Senate, suspending usual rules, rushed the
process and voted in favor of the MOU. Representative Steve Darrow from Putney, who was on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that had tried to draft comprehensive dry cask legislation, testified that he had asked specific questions of Entergy and received evasive answers. When he asked how many years irradiated “spent” fuel is hazardous he was told “several hundred”. When he asked how long it was radioactive he was told “several thousand.” Darrow pointed out to the Board that ENVY is a limited liability company, and the fuel is an asset. When the plant closes the spent fuel becomes a liability and the company goes ‘POOF!’ (Resident Clay Turnbull recounted a headline from today’s paper: “Entergy says New Orleans Nuclear Reactor Might Go Bankrupt.” POOF! Entergy Nuclear’s parent company is based in Louisiana, but their reactors are owned by limited liability corporations, an accounting ploy that exempts them from responsibility for environmental damage or long term management of waste.)

Representative Darrow suggested that the PSB ask the parent company to assume ownership of the Vermont Yankee’s waste after the plant closes. He pointed out that the casks don’t last as long as the fuel is hazardous and/or radioactive. Thus the costs of changing out the casks, (repackaging the fuel) should be part of the decommissioning fund. Darrow agreed with Senator White: “The ball’s in your court because Entergy gamed the process. The bill went behind closed doors and we don’t know what deals were made or said. Don’t let them game you, too. You can cross examine people under oath. We’re depending on you.”

Several Vermont Yankee employees spoke in favor of the dry cask permit, testifying to their training, experience and high level of commitment to safety. They referred to the safety and reliability of the casks (a “proven technology, 20 years old”) and their ability to safeguard them. They pointed out that moving the irradiated fuel rods from the fuel pool into dry casks was the first step toward decommissioning and transporting the waste away from the site. However, one astute resident quoted from the National Academy of Sciences Report on Safety and Security of Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage that “no true multipurpose cask exists here or in any other country,” refuting Entergy’s claim that the Holtec casks were multipurpose, to be used for storage and transport. Another local resident asked rhetorically “Have any dry casks of high-level waste ever been transported to a permanent storage facility?”

Independent Consultant Marvin Resnikoff of Radiation Waste Management Associates agreed that dry storage was the best way to go if irradiated fuel has to be produced. But he pointed out that each canister holds the equivalent of 250 Hiroshima bombs, and right now Entergy would need 60-80 casks to hold all its existing spent fuel. He pointed out that the proposed federal nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain was over committed, as there are currently 210,000 tons of spent fuel waiting to be disposed of around the country, and Yucca Mountain is only designed for 70,000 tons. An additional 140 metric tons of highly radioactive fuel rods would be produced at Vermont Yankee if Entergy operated until 2012, 540 metric tons if they are granted a license renewal to operate until 2032, as they desire.
“The state of Vermont needs to plan for the long term, and the town of Vernon needs to be prepared for the long term. That is a $600 million dollar facility, and it needs to be taxed,” Resnikoff stated.

Deb Katz of the Citizens Awareness Network summed up the general sentiment of those not employed by the reactor. “This is a really terrible situation. Nobody wants high-level radioactive waste on this site. We need to move waste out of the pool, but only into a safe repository, one that is hardened on site, bermed, spaced adequately, with radiation monitors. She urged that the dry cask permit be tied to license expiration.

A 1991 study by an independent engineering firm (Batelle) concluded that the site being considered for high-level waste stored in dry casks was inappropriate for siting a low-level radioactive waste facility.

Diana Sidebotham, NEC founder and President, said that when the VY reactor was originally licensed, the ultimate storage of high level nuclear waste was avoided by the AEC. VY was supposed to store it 6 months, and then it would be “shipped away.”

Several citizens urged the PSB to save Vermonters and rate payers money by permitting the use of dry casks contingent upon shutdown and decommissioning, and begin the process of encouraging renewable energy and energy conservation and efficiency now for VT’s future needs.

One resident of Guilford said her 4-year old son would like a suit like the nuclear workers wear to protect him in case of an emergency. She paused, struggling, then said “I’m sorry, this is emotional to me. We have the capability to stop it and implement change now. Why don’t we?”

Two men, appointed by former VT Governor Howard Dean, neither having a technical background (both having a legal background) will have to decide the answer to that question. If their patience and consideration of the public’s desire to be heard is an indication, they have the judicial temperament. But do they have the wisdom of Solomon? Can they envision the economic impact of managing spent fuel (15-20,000 Hiroshima’s worth) for thousands of years, maintaining emergency preparedness?
Can they balance that against our ever increasing demand for cheap power and one industry’s considerable short term economic clout? That’s a tall order.

Sally Shaw

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that really
matter.” ~MLK