MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin, citing concern about the growing need for nuclear waste storage, is urging the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission to preserve enough space for Vermont to store its nuclear waste.
Vermont and Texas entered an interstate compact in 1993 to store radioactive waste at a facility in Andrews County along the Texas-New Mexico border. The commission, which oversees the landfill, voted in 2011 to also allow 36 other states to dispose of radioactive waste at the facility run by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists.
The Texas-based commission held a meeting Wednesday at the Vermont Statehouse, which featured remarks from Shumlin. Like Entergy-owned Yankee, other aging nuclear power plants are likely to begin shutting down, he said, and there is now greater urgency to ensure that Vermont’s radioactive waste can be safely stored at the Texas facility.
“My view is that as we have more and more of these aging plants to decommission you’re going to find yourselves under tremendous pressure to take waste that, frankly, we haven’t planned well enough for as a nation, and therefore, you will not have enough room for the demand,” Shumlin told the commission.
He called on the commission to work with Vermont and Texas “to make sure that we take care of our own.”
“My concern is that we remember that Vermont and Texas were there. That Vermont and Texas have access to space first because we did it right. And that we ensure that the market pressures and forces protect the space that our two states will need as we go forward,” he said.
Commission Chairman Robert C. Wilson told Shumlin that the agreement Vermont entered into 20 years ago will be followed.
“We’re fully cognizant that Vermont is a compact partner … and we intend to honor the compact. That’s why we’re here,” he said.
Despite raising the concerns, both Shumlin and Department of Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia said to members of the press that they have no reason to believe Vermont’s radioactive waste space will not be preserved.
“The commission is doing the job that they need to do, which is make sure that Texas and Vermont have the capacity they need,” Recchia said. “There is nothing wrong with assisting other states or having other states pay for disposal of material there. We just want to make sure the compact is fulfilled, which we have no reason to believe that it wouldn’t be.”
According to Recchia, 17 percent of the storage space at the Texas facility is reserved for Vermont. The site accepts Class A, B and C waste. Class A has the lowest level of radiation and typically includes gear like gloves and clothing and some medical waste.
Classes B and C have increasing levels of radioactivity. Anything above Class C, including spent fuel rods used in nuclear power plants, is the responsibility of the federal government.
The state is already sending radioactive medical waste and low-level waste from Yankee to Texas and another facility in Clive, Utah. Recchia said decommissioning Yankee will increase the amount of waste to be disposed of and create higher-level waste.
When that will begin remains unclear, however.
The commission also heard from Vermont Yankee officials Wednesday, who said a timeline for decommissioning the plant has yet to be established. Nonetheless, the commission asked for details as soon as possible.
“It’s going to be really important for us to know the plans of Vermont Yankee and Entergy … so we know how to adjust out-of-compact agreements,” Wilson said.
But Mike Twomey, vice president of external affairs for Entergy, could not provide any answers.
“I was a little nervous about appearing before you today and answering none of your questions, which is something I generally don’t do and something I try to avoid. But in this case … I am keenly aware of the commission’s needs today for information,” he said.
Twomey later told reporters that a decommissioning plan is still years away.
“The decommissioning timeline will be established once we complete the study,” he said. “The study will be completed within two years after we cease operations, which is three years from now.”
Vermont provided $25 million — raised by the waste generators — to help establish the Texas landfill. About 90 percent of that cost was paid by Vermont Yankee, according to David Tkatch, the radiation protection manager for Entergy.
The state has contributed about $2.5 million, according to Recchia.
Despite the compact, Yankee is sending much of its low-level waste arising from day-to-day operations to the facility in Utah. Tkatch said 14,000 cubic feet of low-level radioactive waste has been sent to Utah with permission from the compact commission.
“What it does is it actually saves space at the Texas facility for waste that only they can receive, basically. They’re the only compact facility outside of South Carolina that accepts Class B and Class C waste. So, they want to maintain the volume available for those higher-level type wastes,” Tkatch said.
Yankee has shipped about 1,400 cubic feet of waste to Texas this year and expects an additional 1,000 cubic feet to be sent by the end of the year.
The waste is transported on tractor-trailers specially designed to haul the steel and lead casks that contain waste. Shipments leave the Yankee site every four to six weeks, according to Tkatch.
Tkatch said Yankee officials, like state officials, believe that Vermont’s designated space in Texas is sufficient.
“Right now, the space that’s allocated to the state of Vermont seems to be sufficient. And that includes our decommissioning waste,” he said.
Shumlin and Entergy officials have been at odds in recent years over shutting down the nuclear reactor in Vernon. Now the parties must work together to ensure that decommissioning the plant occurs in a timely and safe manner, the governor said.
“A lot has changed here in the last few months. What I can tell you is that while Vermont has had a fairly well-reported difficult relationship with Entergy Louisiana over the question of when the plant should close, we have now come to consensus that the plant will close,” he told the commission.
“We’ve had really good conversations with Entergy about the future. I have made very clear that while we might have had differences — we did have differences in the past — it’s now in all of our interests to work together to ensure that we show not only Vermont but the nation that there’s a way to decommission these old plants in a thoughtful, fast and safe fashion. That’s going to mean that this compact is going to be more important than ever.”
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