Final disposal of Vermont Yankee waste remains open question

Work to decommission the old Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant continues with conversations continuing about what to do with the waste.
Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 8:54 AM EDT
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VERNON, Vt. (WCAX) - Work to decommission the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant continues seven years after it shut down, and that includes ongoing discussions about how to permanently dispose of contaminated waste at the Vernon site.

The U.S. Department of Energy is in charge of figuring out what to do with the waste. But hurdles remain to finding a final resting spot for the 58 dry cask storage containers that remain on site.

“Legally speaking, the federal government has ownership of that waste and responsibility to ultimately remove it to a permanent place of storage,” said Vermont Public Service Commissioner June Tierney.

She says her department’s role is to make sure the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee goes smoothly, but part of that process is waste disposal. “Nuclear waste disposal is a very complicated public policy area. Its first major complication is, is there is a very clear delineation of jurisdiction -- meaning power to act -- on that waste,” said Tierney.

Hurdles the federal government has run into include, how to move the waste, can you move it more than once, and is it good policy to burden one state with the keeping the waste?

“The thinking has always been, if you pay somebody enough, they will take it, but increasingly is that fair, is that just?” said Tierney.

So while the waste remains, another group seeks to best understand the mountain of complications that are still around.

“Members of the panels through this committee have taken on a learning goal, said Emily Davis, chair of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

NDCAP is made up of representatives from state agencies and citizens with a stake in the decommissioning process. They have a subcommittee dedicated to nuclear waste disposal that entertains various options -- and that means everything. “In this case, it was a private organization that’s looking into different and innovative borehole technology for nuclear waste disposal,” said Davis.

Deep Isolation out of California seeks to dig kilometers below the surface using technology similar to oil drilling and then drop the waste down, permanently sealing it afterward. No decisions were made on the tech, but Davis says hearing the ideas and pitches has value. “Just in the effort of learning what is moving in this space, what are the different facets to the nuclear waste issue,” she said.

And while the state of Vermont can’t take action, Tierney says the conversations nationally around nuclear power have shifted as a climate-saving energy option. That means there could be renewed national interest in what to do with the waste. “Now, we finally have perhaps a moment where the momentum gathers sufficiently to be more thoughtful about that, because we need to be because we need that energy to protect the planet,” said Tierney.

She says some environmental groups are now saying nuclear energy is green, without the emissions of fossil fuels. Tierney says that renewed interest in the nuclear power sector could spur innovation on the waste front.

“The technology was used with abandon to generate and the question of what to do with the waste was kicked down the road and it’s unconscionable, but it’s a fact -- it happened. And now we finally have perhaps a moment where the momentum gathers sufficiently to be more thoughtful about that because we need to be, because we need that energy to protect the planet,” said Tierney.

Tierney says recently there have been environmental or social justice groups looking closely at nuclear power and waste, but Vermont’s plans remain the same - take care of it until it can be disposed of.

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