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Federal legislation key to jobs-creating, swift VY clean-up

By Lissa Weinmann

While some celebrate and some lament news of Entergy’s decision to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, we all need to work together to assure that decontamination begins immediately in order to preserve and create hundreds of jobs and assure the safe storage of highly radioactive waste that will certainly remain at the site for decades to come.

While Entergy has announced it plans to leave the facility — and the waste — alone for 60 years as part of a federally acceptable decommissioning methodology called SAFSTOR, such a plan is unacceptable and unprecedented. We have a chance to do better.

Upon purchase of the plant, Entergy signed a contract with the state agreeing to return the Yankee site to greenfield status — a cleaner standard than is normally required by the federal government and a designation the site is unlikely to reach since a legacy of radioactive leaking is bound to complicate cleanup.

Just as Entergy used federal law to abrogate a contractual promise to the state to abide by the state decision about continued operation past March 2012, Entergy will renege on its promise to return the site to greenfield status, siting federal preemption since current law governing nuclear waste management in the U.S. actually allows Entergy to exercise the SAFSTOR or let-it-sit decommissioning option.

An extended court battle looms again unless citizens and our elected leaders work to change anachronistic federal laws that allow nuclear operators to essentially walk away while taxpayers foot the bill for long-term radioactive waste storage and clean-up. Right now, the industry is pushing through legislation in the Senate — The Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 S. 1240 — which, as written, preserves a status quo that serves this ailing, heavily subsidized industry at the expense of Vermonters and the U.S. public at large. The rush to rewrite nuclear waste law is prompted by a March 2012 Federal District Court of Appeals ruling that killed the NRC’s long-standing Waste Confidence rule that has allowed high-density spent fuel storage at nuclear plant sites since no permanent geological disposal site has been found.

The Court’s took strong issue with the Nuclear Regulator Commission’s claim that regulated plants have a low probability of spent fuel pool fires and radioactive leakage. This decision forced the NRC to suspend all licensing of nuclear power plants — a fact the industry is scrambling to overcome with a new law.

We have an opportunity to put the brakes on and help shape this law to benefit communities like ours that shoulder this nuclear waste burden. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a high ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee handling the bill and can fight for the funds and directives that will force Entergy to decontaminate the Yankee site now to create jobs and ensure community health and safety.

SAFSTOR decommissioning for Yankee would allow one of the hottest concentrations of radioactive waste on the planet to stew in pools not built for that purpose. Experts across the board say the fuel in these pools must be moved to safer dry-cask storage as soon as possible to avoid a pool fire that could be triggered by any loss of backup power needed to pump water up seven stories to keep the rods cool. If the rods can’t, for whatever reason, get the massive amounts of water required to keep them cool, an environmental disaster of epic proportions ensues. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s own internal safety scenarios paint a horrific picture in the event of a pool fire as opposed to consequences of potential events involving dry casks.

Current legislation could require that crowded spent fuel pools the Appeals Court is so concerned about be restored to their original purpose — to cool hot rods before they move to dry casks.

The new bill should allow use of the Nuclear Waste Fund to address the most pressing waste situations first. The 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act created the industry-financed fund to help pay for one “central repository” that — even after an estimated $8 billion went to the failed Yucca Mountain project — may never exist. Even if a site was named tomorrow, the US Department of Energy says waste will remain at nuclear plants like VY for at least another 50 years. The 2003 McFarlane study estimated it would cost at least $3.5 billion to relieve the nation’s spent fuel pools, a figure now risen to about $6 billion, a prudent price to avoid such catastrophic risk.

The NRC allows spent fuel pools to stray into the unknown use as long-term waste containers despite nuclear engineering experts and current NRC Chair Allison MacFarlane’s deep concerns. In 2003 MacFarlane co-authored a call to action with a report entitled “Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States.” Gregory Jaczko, who resigned as NRC chair in 2012, has also spoken out. Clearly the NRC has a great deal of latitude to regulate even under current law. Unfortunately the agency’s duel mission to both protect the public while promoting the industry are at odds, thus the need for clarifying legislation that reflects the negative economics of nuclear and helps the taxpayer and reactor communities dig out of the toxic mess.

“Putting the brakes on” the federal legislation in no way is intended to obstruct the good work being done, rather it is to give uninformed communities more time to understand the implications of the law and participate in the process. The federal government needs to act since it (read WE) – not the nuclear industry – is responsible for the waste. Nuclear companies have already sued the US for failure to provide a permanent repository to the tune of nearly $3 billion, a sum the the US Department of Energy says is likely to grow to $20 billion by 2020 if nothing is done.

The best solution remains hardened dry cask storage as soon as possible to create jobs and keep us safe. Dry casks survived the 2011 Fukushima tsunami relatively unscathed while the Yankee-style spent fuel pools still hover on the brink of disaster. The legislation is there to be shaped by we citizens most impacted by it; the money is there to fund decontamination now. The question is — can our long divided community unite to fight for a law that will help everyone survive Vermont Yankee?

Lissa Weinmann, a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York, lives and is a home and business owner in Brattleboro.

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