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McQuiston: Decomissioning Dilemma

Anyone doing a victory lap over the decision by Entergy to close Vermont Yankee by the end of 2014, might want to bring an extra water bottle and slow down to a jog because the actual dismantling of the plant might be another 60 years, or more, away - because the fight between Entergy and the state of Vermont is not even close to over.

The new battle will be over SAFSTOR, or Entergy's plan to postpone dismantling the plant right away, and take up to 60 years to do so. Furthermore, since this is a federal issue, the state may have little to say about it.

Essentially, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows a nuclear plant operator to mothball a plant for up to 60 years before the site is completely wiped clean. Entergy has stated that it will choose to SAFSTOR Vermont Yankee. This will allow it to put off the greater expense of decommissioning the plant, which includes the removal of all radioactive material other than the spent fuel, the dismantling of the buildings, and the remediation of the actual site, even to the planting of grass seed.

It doesn’t have to remove the spent fuel from the site, but it does have to safely store it until the federal government, which is responsible for the highly radioactive material, finds a final resting place for it.

This way, Entergy could let its decommissioning fund grow and put off the expense and headache of undertaking the decommissioning project for decades

Unfortunately, I think that Governor Shumlin and others missed an opportunity to have that Vernon site reconditioned as soon, instead of as late, as possible. It seems to me that the real issue never was the on-going operation of the plant. The latest it would have operated would have been May 2032, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that long from now. Nineteen years ago Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, and that doesn’t seem so very long ago – does it?

But if Vermont Yankee is put into SAFSTOR and then fully decommissioned, it could be 2074 before the process is completed, and I don’t think anyone believes that 2074 is right around the corner.

If the state had negotiated a deal to allow Vermont Yankee to keep operating until its license expired in 2032 and then begin the decommissioning process as soon as possible after that - the site would have been fully dismantled sooner, and more people would have continued to be employed for a more consistent period of time, since the decommissioning process itself is labor intensive and will take years to complete.

There will also be an issue over when the clock starts ticking on that 60 years. Is it today or when the plant begins to power down? When it’s shut off? When it cools off enough to start to mothball? When its license expires in 2032?

SAFSTOR is just one of the up-hill battles we still face.

Tim McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.
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