Vermont Yankee is preparing to shut down next year, a process expected to take decades. Entergy had three options for its decommissioning:
ENTOMB has never been used in the United States and would apply to cases where the plant is too unstable to dismantle -- like Chernobyl. Until recently, most plants, like nearby Maine Yankee, went into DECON -- immediate dismantling. But SAFSTOR, which Entergy chose, is a newer option for plants that allows for slower dismantling.
Experts say there are both financial and safety reasons why a company might choose the SAFSTOR method. The plant can shut off, while decommissioning funds earn interest over decades. And the radioactivity also decreases over time, which could be up to 60 years, though experts believe Vermont Yankee's timetable will likely be up for negotiation depending on other factors, like the fact that the federal government has no place to store spent fuel now.
"There's no doubt that a longer time frame will provide a greater benefit of radioactive decay," says Bill Irwin, Vt. Dept. Of Health, Radiological & Toxicological Sciences Chief. "But I don't think that's the only reason to make a determination on when the decontamination takes place."
That radioactive fuel means there will be new construction needed after the plant closes. Currently, Irwin says there are about eight dry casks of spent fuel on site. When the plant is dismantled, there will be many more, and a new spent fuel pad will be needed to hold them.
"We will have reports sent to us here at the Department of Health that report the temperature of those casks and the radiation levels from those casks so that we can be among the first to know if there are problems there relative to their overheating or emitting excessive amounts of radiation," Irwin says.
The health department also plans to continue monitoring the environment around the plant, though Irwin says it will generally be safer after shutdown.
He uses the analogy of a boiling pot: When the pot is hot and the water boiling, they're more concerned about spills. But a pot of cold water won't boil over -- though it could still leak, which is what they'll look for. But as the years go by, they will have to monitor a smaller and smaller area.
"After the fuel in the reactors cools down enough that they can take it out, then we're looking at maybe even shrinking that geographic zone down some more," says Irwin.
Ultimately though, the monitoring within the plant itself during the shutdown period, including worker safety, is left up to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
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