Vermont Yankee may stop pumping out power next year, but its radioactive fuel won't be leaving Vermont anytime soon. Yankee's owners say they want to slowly dismantle the plant, an approved method for closing nuclear reactors called SAFSTOR.
"Full decommissioning is a long process," said Jeff Forbes, the chief nuclear officer for Entergy.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows three primary types of decommissioning:
A plant can ENTOMB-- that's when radioactive elements are permanently encased on site, buildings and all. So far, no nuclear plant in the country has been entombed.
A plant can go with DECON-- dismantling the plant entirely, returning the site to greenfields.
Or a plant can go with Yankee's preference, SAFSTOR. Some experts call it DECON in slow motion. The NRC allows operators 60 years to fully decommission the plant.
Yankee's owners have never decommissioned a plant before.
"While we haven't done that, there is a lot of experience in the industry in terms of how to do that. There are people that work for us that have participated in other decommissionings," Forbes said.
"You would have radioactivity on the insides of pipes and the insides of tanks," Howard Shaffer said.
Shaffer is a retired nuclear engineer who helped get Yankee up and running starting in 1970. He says once the reactor is shut off that fuel needs to cool down for about five years. Once that's done, the buildings could be dismantled, starting a DECON process. But with radioactive residue throughout, he says plants often opt to wait and go with SAFSTOR.
"The value of that is the radiation decreases, natural radioactive decay. So, there's less exposure to workers; it costs less," Shaffer explained.
And cost is a concern. The Public Service Department says Yankee has just over $580 million set aside in its decommissioning fund. And no matter what method is ultimately approved, that probably won't cover the full cost. A rapid dismantling could reach $1 billion.
Reporter Kristin Kelly: How do you ensure that Vermont taxpayers won't get stuck paying for this decommissioning?
Chris Recchia/Vermont Public Service Commissioner: Yeah, so this is pretty set in NRC rules, the federal requirements of this. Vermonters are not on the hook for this and we will protect them in the process of winding this down to make sure that doesn't happen.
State officials want to see the site return to greenfields as soon as is can be done safely. But even with the plant torn down and removed to a low-level radioactive waste site, all of the spent fuel and its lingering radiation will still be on site in dry cask storage. The federal government still has no approved site for storing high-level radioactive waste, so plants store it in place.
"The federal government made a promise when these plants were built-- not just ours, but the plants across the country-- that they were going to build a repository for that waste," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont. "And one place where myself and Entergy agree is that the federal government needs to do their job and create a place that's better than the banks of the Connecticut River to store long-term waste. I continue to have faith that we will work that one out."
The shutdown process could take at least a decade and keep many jobs on site. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the final say on Yankee's decommissioning plan.