October 18, 2019

By Susan Smallheer
Brattleboro Reformer

VERNON — Nine months into the demolition of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, NorthStar CEO Scott State says the project is already about six months ahead of schedule. He said the company has been able to make progress by "doing things differently."

State said the project was divided up into three, two-year segments, and that the company will complete the project ahead of the 2030 deadline easily and on budget.

NorthStar’s partner for the first segment of the project, Orano USA, is already cutting up the nuclear reactor’s internals and getting them ready for shipment to another partner’s waste site in western Texas.

State said he originally expected the job would be completed by 2026.

"I think we’ll be done well before 2026," he said Thursday during a tour of the Vernon site with reporters, giving an update of the $500-plus million project. "We are months ahead of schedule."

State said despite the pace, the company had recently reached 220,000 man hours on the site with no ‘lost-time accidents,’ which he said is a tribute to the company’s planning and safety culture.

"These are big logistical jobs," he said.

State said NorthStar was in negotiations with the town of Vernon about leaving untouched some buildings and components, as long as they pass a radiological survey. NorthStar’s administrative building, which sits outside the security fence surrounding the plant and the de-construction zone, is one asset the town is interested in, State said.

He said he hopes to transfer some of the "assets" to Vernon even before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission releases the entire site from federal oversight.

"This is the community’s asset," said State. "We’re not developers."

The plant’s intake structure on the Connecticut River is another item the town is interested in, said David Pearson, NorthStar’s vice president.

COOLING TOWERS

Vermont Yankee’s iconic dual bank of cooling towers are now gone, leaving a large field free of tons of debris, but still sporting a 250,000 gallon hole that was an emergency reservoir for the plant.

"We’ll fill it in," said Corey Daniels, a longtime employee at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, as he and others climbed up a now-vacant security tower installed in the hyper security days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and got a good view of the ongoing demolition and clean up of the 130-acre site.

In all, the demolition is expected to take at least six years, and possibly longer, and cost upwards of $500 million.

By comparison, Entergy Nuclear, which had owned Vermont Yankee since 2002, had estimated it would cost more than double that amount – $1.2 billion – and that included waiting 50 years or so to let the plant’s trust fund grow, and allow radioactivity to decay.

While nothing was under active demolition like the cooling tower project, which was completed in July, workers were busy moving large concrete and steel casks that would hold cut-up components of the plant’s reactor core – some of the most radioactive material, aside from the plant’s fuel.

The vast majority of the demolition will be shipped off site by rail. NorthStar rebuilt the rail line that served Vermont Yankee back when it was constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, to carry heavy loads. The radioactive materials are labeled and put into either special shielded boxes and filled with concrete, or inserted into heavy-duty canisters for the trip to western Texas.

According to Daniels, shipping by rail is much more efficient and much cheaper than trucking.

On Thursday, workers were preparing one of the 17 large boxes that would hold the pieces of the reactor vessel internals.

WHERE WILL THE WASTE GO?

At Yankee, it’s all about nuclear waste and where it will go.

The transfer of the nuclear fuel from the plant’s spent fuel pool into concrete and steel canisters was completed a year ago, shortly before NorthStar bought Vermont Yankee from Entergy Nuclear Corp., said State.

There are 58 of the giant canisters on the north end of the Yankee site, behind barbed wire and barricades – and guards. It will remain there for years, until the federal government acts to create either permanent storage for the dangerous, highly radioactive fuel (hence the security), or an interim storage site.

State said Waste Control Specialists, which he described as a partner of NorthStar’s, runs a low-level radioactive waste site in western Texas and has proposed building an interim storage site, a plan that is pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Holtec International, a competitor of Waste Control Specialists and the builder of the storage casks being used at Yankee, has a competing application for a nearby site in southeastern New Mexico.

State, who lives in Arizona during the winter, makes a point of coming to Vermont Yankee at least once a month to check on progress.

He said he expects the NRC to make a decision on the proposed consolidated, interim storage in about three years, and he said because the WCS site is owned by a NorthStar affiliate, Yankee’s high-level radioactive waste could be shipped quickly, rather than following a federal requirement of oldest-waste first.

NorthStar is hoping that the Vermont Yankee project brings it other nuclear demolition projects, as by State’s calculation there will be another 10 nuclear reactors shutting down in the next five years. NorthStar recently signed an agreement to demolish Duke Energy’s Crystal River reactor in Florida. That project is awaiting NRC approval, he said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.

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