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US Department of Energy says spent nuclear fuel could remain in Vernon until 2046

Photo of the reactor building at Vermont Yankee in Vernon, a giant grey rectangle surrounded by the rubble of previously demolished buildings at the plant.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Vermont Public
In this file photo from October 2023, the reactor building at the former Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant is the only structure remaining on the site.

The high-level radioactive waste at the former Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon will likely remain in Vermont for at least 20 years, according to an official with the U.S. Department of Energy.

U.S. DOE Waste Program Manager John Shultz gave a presentation to state officials Monday on the federal government’s plans to remove the waste from at least 20 different sites across the country, including the former nuclear reactor site in Vernon.

Shultz told members of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel Federal Nuclear Waste Policy Committee that while the government has an approved way of transporting the waste by rail, there is currently nowhere to store the material.

The plan for opening a storage facility at Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, has been mostly abandoned, and Shultz said the government is trying to come up with a new location.

He said the U.S. government still believes that all of the stored waste at the 20 closed nuclear reactors across the country can be transported off the sites before 2046, while also admitting that there is not even a proposed location on the table at the moment.

“We do have a plan, but can we find willing host communities?” he said. “And if we do, then the plan, it does exist, to move material from Vermont Yankee to our federal site.”

Vermont Yankee shut down at the end of 2014, and while the work to tear down the buildings and cart away the low-level nuclear waste is almost complete, there are still 58 casks of spent nuclear fuel stored at the site in Vernon.

The demolition company NorthStar is tearing down the former nuclear power plant, and the company said it will consider turning the decommissioned site over to the town of Vernon when it is done with the work.

But the company will continue to monitor the 58 casks that are holding the spent nuclear fuel, even after the rest of the site is turned over to the town.

The Department of Energy owns the fuel, and is ultimately responsible for disposing it, but without a safe location it could remain in Vernon for at least 22 years, Shultz said.

It could cost the government up to $10 billion to move and store the waste, Shultz said.

“It’s difficult for DOE to reasonably predict the amount of government’s liability moving forward because we don’t have a place to move the fuel,” he said.

The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel Federal Nuclear Waste Policy Committee asked Shultz to give an update on the government’s plans, as well as to provide information on the latest monitoring technologies for the fuel.

Shultz talked about an emerging technology that uses sound waves to monitor the spent fuel canisters, but he said the technology is still years away from being approved.

“We’re trying to unravel this scenario of long-term storage here on our site. And what might happen and what time frame basically,” said Lissa Weinmann, chair of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel Federal Nuclear Waste Policy Committee. “Some questions have arisen, such as, what happens if a cask is faulty? Or who is responsible for dealing with that? Is it the licensee? Is it the NRC? I think we’re still grappling with another at least 25-year horizon, according to your best scenario calculations. So we’re considering those questions very seriously while the casks are here.”

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.

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