Vermont Yankee, which ceased operating Dec. 29 after 42 years, announced this week it had moved the last of its nuclear fuel out of the reactor core and into its spent-fuel pool. There’s a certain comfort in that. But the plant now has 2,995 spent fuel assemblies in its spent-fuel pool on the fifth floor of its reactor building. Officials from Entergy Nuclear, the plant’s owner, have said those assemblies must remain in the cooling pool for five years before they can be disposed of.
Of course, by disposed of, we mean not disposed of at all, but rather, moved into concrete-encased steel “dry casks” elsewhere on the property of the Vernon, Vt., site. From there, the federal government will … um … the U.S. Department of Energy will make sure … uh … well, actually, there is no plan after that.
The decommissioning of the plant will take place over the next decade or six — likely closer to the former, given that Entergy has said it will not drag the process out and given the time frames involved in the three other New England nuclear plants that have been shuttered. All three were fully decommissioned within 15 years of closing. But each company is still in existence, for the sole purpose of storing the highly-radioactive waste it generated.
Maine Yankee in Wiscasset, Maine, continues to hold 1,434 spent fuel rod assemblies in 60 dry casks, plus four casks with radioactive steel from the dismantled plant. Connecticut Yankee in Haddam, Conn., is storing 1,019 spent rod assemblies in 43 dry casks. And Yankee Rowe in Rowe, Mass., still has 533 spent rod assemblies on site in 15 dry casks. That means there are nearly 6,000 spent nuclear fuel rod assemblies sitting around in New England from shuttered nuclear plants. And that doesn’t even count the waste from the active Millstone, Pilgrim and Seabrook plants.
Yankee Atomic Electric Co., the parent company of Maine Yankee, Connecticut Yankee and Yankee Rowe, says it spends $8 million-$10 million annually to monitor and store the spent nuclear fuel and other “Greater than Class C” radioactive waste at Maine Yankee alone.
Technically, the Department of Energy is responsible for the waste under a law passed during the Reagan administration that promised to develop a repository for the nation’s most dangerous waste. But thanks to the obvious political pitfalls involved, that has yet to emerge.
Yankee Atomic Electric sued the Department of Energy for breach of contract for not providing a disposal site. So far the department has forked over almost $300 million to the owners of the three plants to compensate for costs from 1998 through 2008. Another claim has been filed for costs for 2009-2012.
Perhaps Entergy will someday be filing the same lawsuit over Vermont Yankee’s waste. We can’t help but wonder, in a country where the Supreme Court insists money equals speech, how many lawsuits and how much “speech” it will cost the federal government before a solution is found.