MONTPELIER — The closed Vermont Yankee nuclear plant will be mothballed for decades before it is dismantled and its radioactive components are shipped off. But already, plans by the plant to ship hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive water to a Tennessee processing facility are raising concerns.
It's a situation being played around the country as aging nuclear plants begin to close. Nearly all are expected to stand dormant for up to 60 years while their radioactivity diminishes and their decommissioning funds grow. But early in their retirements, huge amounts of contaminated water will need to be shipped off for processing.
It's a reminder that even as the benefits of nuclear power fade in memory in regions where plants are closing, the retired reactors will remain an environmental and public safety challenge for decades to come.
In order to prepare the reactor for the period of dormancy — called "safe-store" in industry parlance — that could last until the 2070s, all of Vermont Yankee's pipes and other parts that hold water need to be drained. First stop for the radioactive water is a large, doughnut-shaped container at the base of the reactor called the torus.
The torus, with a capacity of 1.1 million gallons, was used to store water in the event the plant needed emergency cooling during its nearly 43 years of operation, from 1972 to the end of 2014. Now it's a giant holding tank for water waiting to be sent away for processing and disposal.
With more highly contaminated water from other parts of the plant added to the torus since the shutdown, the radioactivity of the torus water has grown substantially at Vermont Yankee, said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's regional office for the Northeast.
Arnold Gundersen, a former nuclear industry engineer who now heads a consulting group frequently critical of the industry, said the "torus now contains a witch's blend of radioactive chemicals."
Plans had been for the water to be shipped to a processing plant in Idaho, but Martin Cohn, spokesman for Vermont Yankee owner Entergy Corp., said Thursday a cheaper alternative had been found in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, said Cohn and Sheehan, Vermont Yankee has an additional water problem. As in many New England basements, water has been flowing in from outside.
That "intrusion water" will be at most only slightly radioactive, Cohn said, and Vermont Yankee is hoping to get the state's permission to discharge it into the adjacent Connecticut River.
George Desch, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said that would require the company to seek an amended state discharge permit.
A top Vermont utility regulator, Commissioner Christopher Recchia, of the Department of Public Service, said he would rather see both the intrusion water and the torus water shipped to Tennessee for processing.
Paul Gunter, reactor oversight project director with the Washington-based nuclear watchdog group, said he would like to see public notification about shipments and routes, with first responders along the routes notified ahead of time and placards noting contents on the outsides of trucks.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Transportation would not comment on the record, but pointed to material on the agency's website indicating precautions taken would be determined according to the risks posed by the shipments.
Sheehan said in an email, "My understanding is it the radioactive content is below certain levels, the shipment would not have to be placarded."
Cohn said placards would not be required.