Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant Just Shut Down; U.S. Still Has No System for Disposing of Nuclear Waste

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant Shut Down
The spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. The federal government has no way to handle the nation's nuclear waste. Vermont Yankee

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant officially went offline Monday, halting the nuclear reaction process and beginning what could be a nearly 40-year process to fully decommission the plant. But what happens to all the plant's nuclear waste at the end of those decades? No one knows for sure, because the U.S. government has nowhere to put it.

That's also the case for the nuclear waste from decommissioned plants all over the country: Their spent fuel rods remain on the reactor property, trapped inside steel cylinders called "dry casks," even after the reactor is disassembled.

Since 1998, the federal government has been legally bound to remove dry-casked nuclear waste from private plants and dispose of it in a secure facility. But it can't, because no such facility exists. Yucca Mountain, the facility that might have been, has been in limbo since its conception in 1987. It was initially scheduled to come online in 1998, but never did. Only 5 miles of the 40-mile storage tunnel were ever built. With more than $30 billion already collected over three decades from taxpayers for the project, the Obama administration cut funding to the mostly-unbuilt project in 2011.

As it stands now, it's predicted the waste from the plant will be transfered from cooling ponds into dry casks by 2020. Then those casks may end up sitting on the reactor's property in Vernon, Vermont, indefinitely, like so many thousands of casks lying around on reactor sites all over the country. The Vermont Yankee lists 2052 as the year the federal government might come take them away, but that's pending Congressional action that has not yet taken place. So what does a corporation do when a contract, government or otherwise, is violated? They sue.

"You then sue the Department of Energy for the costs that are incurred for storing the spent fuel. [So do] all the other decommissioned facilities—the dry casks still remain on the site because there's no place to bring the spent fuel. So you sue the Department of Energy and they pay you back for the cost that you've incurred," says Martin Cohn, a spokesperson Entergy Wholesale Commodities, which owns Vermont Yankee.

According to a report commissioned by the Obama administration, the federal government as of 2012 has paid $2 billion in damages to utility companies in lawsuits like these. The report projected that by 2020, that number could total $20.8 billion. Utilities have filed over 80 suits against the DOE over nuclear waste storage, according to the report.

Activists and residents have protested Vermont Yankee for decades, concerned about the safety of the plant and the stability of its radioactive contents. In 2007, a cooling tower collapsed. In 2010, radioactive tritium leaked out of corroded steam pipes at the plant, contaminating surrounding groundwater. Those Vermonters will probably be none too pleased to have nuclear waste sitting, indefinitely, on a patch of land in their state. David McIntyre, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, understands that. But he says so long as the radioactive material is in dry casks, it doesn't pose much of a problem.

"Obviously the community would want the fuel out of there because no fuel is better than any fuel," McIntyre says. "But from a technical safety standpoint, there isn't really [a safety threat]. The fuel can be stored safely where it is."

For example, during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, the plant's nine dry casks of spent fuel were not damaged. McIntyre says there would be some benefit to guarding all nuclear waste in a central location, but for the most part, finding a way for the government to collect the material is "more a political and business issue than a safety issue." Utilities don't want to be guarding casks forever.

With the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in 2015, there is speculation that funding will be returned to the Yucca Mountain project, or at the very least, Congress will come up with a plan to collect waste and store it in a temporary central location. In 2013, the DOE published a roadmap for nuclear storage, setting a target for opening an interim repository by 2025.

Even if the DOE begins collecting nuclear waste in 2025, the waste from Vermont Yankee would still be waiting a long time to be picked up. Vermont Yankee, having only just been shut down, is now at the bottom of the list, says Cohn, of Entergy.

"By the time it is our turn, it will probably be about 2052, but it could be as early as the 2040s," he says. "That's based on the DOE's ability to find a site to put it."

For the next several decades at least, Vermont Yankee's nuclear waste will stay in Vermont.

"[T]here's no alternative. There's nowhere to put it," says McIntyre.