Lobbyists, lawmakers and activists look at dry cask storage and the future of Vermont Yankee

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(Host) The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant wants to store its highly radioactive spent fuel in large canisters near the Connecticut River. Yankee argues that – unless it wins legislative permission for the dry cask storage – it will shut down in 2008. In the Legislature, a tax on Yankee is being considered that would bring in money for clean energy projects.

VPR’s John Dillon reports on how this debate is unfolding in Montpelier.

(Sound of bomb sniffers at Vermont Yankee.)

(Dillon) Guards with automatic weapons protect the perimeter of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon. Visitors must clear a criminal background check. At the gatehouse, a machine sniffs the air for chemical explosives.

(Guard) “As you’re going through the equipment here, there’s no headgear worn. All the metal’s got to come off you. The first one is explosives, second one is a metal detector….”

(Dillon) It’s inside this security zone – the area is encircled by a high fence topped with concertina wire – that Yankee hopes to store its radioactive waste. Thirty-three years’ worth of spent fuel is now kept inside the reactor building, submerged in a deep pool of water. But the pool is running out of room and a permanent repository in Nevada is years away from opening.

So Yankee wants to store the waste in about a dozen concrete and steel casks. When the plant is eventually decommissioned and the spent fuel pool is emptied, 50 to 60 of the casks would be needed. But before it can store any of the fuel outside the plant, Yankee has to make a pilgrimage to Montpelier.

(Brian Cosgrove) “This is really about the energy future of the state of Vermont.”

(Dillon) Yankee official Brian Cosgrove is in the Statehouse cafeteria, making the case that the nuclear plant is an essential part of Vermont’s energy mix now and for the decades ahead. Cosgrove is part of a full-court lobbying press for Entergy, the company that owns Vermont Yankee.

Vermont law says Entergy has to win permission from lawmakers if they want to change their waste storage. The law was passed in the late 1970s because legislators at the time worried that Vermont could be chosen for a high level nuclear waste dump. No one thought Yankee would need expanded waste storage. So the law specifically exempts the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation from needing legislative approval. But that company no longer owns the plant. Cosgrove wants lawmakers to make a quick wording change and exempt Entergy as well.

(Cosgrove) “That is the simple solution. I think that is the proper way to do it.”

(Dillon) It may not be that simple, however. Lawmakers want to take a close look at waste storage. Some say that Yankee may have to pay a price to store the waste. Steve Darrow is a Democrat from Dummerston, the Windham County community not far north of the nuclear plant.

(Darrow) “I think we’re going to have find a balance there about how long, a definite drop dead date when the waste is going to be out of there. And until then, we can tax it and fund renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

(Dillon) The idea of taxing the waste and using the money to jump-start clean energy projects comes from Minnesota. Bill Grant works in St. Paul for the Izaak Walton League, a national environmental group. He ticks off the projects that the utility in Minnesota had to invest in.

(Grant) “Eight-hundred-twenty-five megawatts of wind, 125 megawatts of biomass and a commitment of two percent of gross operating revenue on energy efficiency.”

(Dillon) The Minnesota Legislature has also required the utility to pay a million dollars a year for each dry cask. The money goes into a renewable energy fund that brings in about $16 million a year.

Entergy lobbyists fiercely resist the idea of a tax. They argue the company has already paid Vermont in the form of favorable electric rates, rates that they say will save consumers $250 million over 10 years. Brian Cosgrove says that, in Minnesota, the utility could pass the cost of the tax on to ratepayers. But he says Entergy, as a wholesale producer of power, can’t do that.

(Cosgrove) “Because Entergy purchased Vermont Yankee and is responsible for all of the expenses of operating that nuclear plant, nothing is any longer passed on to the ratepayers of the state of Vermont.”

(Mark Sinclair) “It’s called the market. That’s the way the wholesale energy market works.”

(Dillon) Mark Sinclair at the Conservation Law Foundation doesn’t have much sympathy for Entergy.

(Sinclair) “You have private investors. They make decisions and they live with those decisions. It was very clear when they purchased the Vermont Yankee plant that there was no guarantee they would receive dry cask storage approval.”

(Dillon) Sinclair and Cosgrove do agree on one point. They both say the debate about dry cask storage is really a debate about Vermont’s energy future. Vermont’s major energy supplies – Yankee and Hydro Quebec – run out in the middle of the next decade.

(Sinclair) “We need to have a game plan and the Entergy dry cask storage issue allows us, I think, a responsible way to create some other energy options in state that are clean and safe. And Minnesota is a test case. They’ve done that.”

(Dillon) Yankee also wants to increase its power by 20 percent. That means the plant would produce more waste and run out of room earlier. But Cosgrove says Yankee needs to move to dry cask storage with or without the power uprate.

(Cosgrove) “But if the plant does not get permission to do dry fuel storage, the plant will shut down. And when you shut down a nuclear plant like ours, the very first thing you have to do is put the fuel in dry cask storage so you can begin to decommission the plant. So either way, there will be dry cask storage at the site.”

(Dillon) But many in the Legislature see Yankee’s power uprate plan and its dry cask proposal as inextricably linked. There’s also the huge question about what happens after 2012, when Yankee’s license expires. Plant officials are considering filing for a license extension. And this year’s debate over waste storage is just a preview of the controversy that proposal would bring.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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