VERNON, Vt. — Across from an elementary school, a short road leads to a gate topped by barbed wire and a stark sign that warns in large letters: “Security personnel are authorized to use deadly force.”
The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant stopped producing power last year, but rigorous security measures, including heavily armed guards in bulletproof towers, are still in place and will be for decades to protect hundreds of tons of radioactive waste that remain behind the gate.
The spent fuel will stay here along a bend of the Connecticut River, just 10 miles from the Massachusetts border, until the federal government can resolve a decades-old political battle over where to store the waste from the nation’s nuclear plants.
Across the United States, there are 22 decommissioned plants that have become heavily guarded repositories of spent fuel, their owners waiting indefinitely for a federal decision on where to permanently store the radioactive waste. About 150 miles away in Plymouth, Mass., the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station will enter the same phase after it closes sometime in the next four years and moves its waste into massive casks.
The issue of nuclear waste has long been a political quandary, one that has become increasingly urgent as more of the nation’s aging nuclear plants are shuttered.
Federal officials had long planned to store the waste in a multibillion-dollar repository bored deep into Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But state officials and residents there have blocked the site from opening, arguing that it presents public safety and environmental risks.
The Obama administration has been reviewing other options, including opening temporary facilities elsewhere in the country that would store spent fuel until the federal government builds a repository.
“We don’t think Yucca Mountain will be a viable approach,” said Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz during a recent meeting with reporters and editors at the Globe.
Moniz said his staff is reviewing a proposal to build a temporary storage site in Andrews County, Texas, which already hosts two radioactive waste disposal facilities. The government will also have to overcome concerns and potential challenges over transporting the fuel through a variety of jurisdictions.
Until then, the waste will remain atop specially built concrete pads at the nation’s nuclear plants. That means the properties cannot be redeveloped for other uses, major security measures will remain in force at sites scattered across the country, and many of their neighbors will continue to live in fear.
“We’re talking about a colossal amount of dangerous waste,” said Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network, who lives 18 miles from Vermont Yankee. “The radioactive plume from an accident could travel more than 100 miles within 24 hours, depending on which way the wind blows.”
Entergy Corp., a Louisiana-based conglomerate that owns the plants in Vernon and Plymouth, plans a decommissioning process at Pilgrim similar to the one it has started at Vermont Yankee.
On its compact campus in Vernon, Vermont Yankee’s remaining 285 employees — about 600 people worked at the plant until last December — have transferred all of the remaining fuel to a 37-foot-deep pool suspended seven stories above ground in a concrete containment building. There are 2,996 spent fuel assemblies cooling in the pool.
After they’re moved into safer, dry storage, the plant will have 58 of the 18-foot-tall, 300,000-pound casks on the outdoor pad along the Connecticut River.
Activists who live near Vermont Yankee have urged the plant to move the spent fuel more quickly from the pools, which they fear could catch fire if an earthquake or other natural disaster caused a leak or cut power to the plant. They have also raised concerns about storing the casks closely together out in the open, rather than below ground or in a hardened building.
“Should someone be interested in shooting them up, they’re sitting ducks,” said Nancy Braus of the Safe and Green Campaign in Brattleboro. “They’re easy targets, very visible.”
Vermont Yankee officials dismiss the activists’ concerns and say the decommissioning is following the strict requirements of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees 67 sites around the country where nuclear waste is stored in casks.
“There are security features in place that should allay any concerns by the public,” said Marty Cohn, a spokesman for Vermont Yankee. “Any concerns about hostile actions have not only been contemplated but also drilled. Security measures are in place to handle those contingencies.”
He added: “Our plan has always been to move the spent fuel to dry casks as quickly and safely as we can.”
Activists who live near Pilgrim say they’re especially concerned about Entergy’s oversight of the money-losing plant in the coming years. The regulatory commission downgraded its safety ranking in September, designating the 43-year-old plant as having one of the nation’s three least-safe reactors.
“Public confidence has eroded,” said Arlene Williamson, vice president of Cape Downwinders, one of several groups that protested at the State House in October to demand Pilgrim close immediately.
Regulatory commission officials don’t require plants to move their spent fuel to casks in any specific time frame. They do, however, require the waste to cool in the pools for at least five years.
“The NRC considers both methods of spent fuel storage . . . to be safe,” said Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the regulatory commission.
He also called the casks “an extremely robust design,” noting that they are made of steel-reinforced concrete outer shells that cover sealed metal cylinders. He said they have been designed to prevent the release of dangerous radiation in the event of being hit by anything from a tornado to an aircraft.
The commission has done “vulnerability assessments” and found that the casks “would be able to withstand these attacks,” Sheehan said.
Activists near both plants have also raised concerns about Entergy’s ability to cover the costs to decommission them.
Vermont Yankee estimates it will cost more than $1.2 billion and take until 2075 to decommission the plant, but the company now has only about $600 million to pay for the decommissioning and has been criticized for depleting that fund to pay for operating expenses and taxes. As of Sept. 30, Pilgrim had approximately $870 million in its decommissioning fund — $240 million more than the company was legally required to have. Entergy officials said they weren’t sure how much it will cost to decommission Pilgrim.
Activists in Vermont worry the firm is trying to cut costs at the expense of the region’s safety. For example, they cite Entergy’s plans next year to halt $4.5 million in annual emergency planning payments to benefit some 30 communities within 10 miles of the plant.
Company officials insist the plant no longer poses a threat to those communities, which include some in Massachusetts.
Regulatory commission officials have authorized Entergy to stop those payments, saying it would take 10 hours before a loss of cooling in the spent fuel pool ignited a fire. That “would allow ample time for mitigating actions,” Sheehan said.
On a recent tour of Vermont Yankee, company officials highlighted the plant’s ample security and safety measures. There were the large concrete barricades around the plant, multiple steel-bar doors leading to the entrance, razor wire-topped fences, rusty spikes, and motion detectors between them. There were also guards carrying automatic weapons and checking identification, scores of cameras, and bomb detectors, among other security measures.
Vermont Yankee will continue to reduce staff in the coming years as buildings are razed, utility lines disconnected, and drainage pipes removed. The plant this year received its first electric bill, and that $300,000 underscored how things are changing, Cohn said.
The company has been encouraging employees to turn off the lights and lower the heat.
“When we’re not operating, we have to justify all of our expenses,” Cohn said.
Across the street, at Vernon Elementary School, parents and administrators said they had few concerns about the decommissioning.
As students boarded a line of buses to go home, principal Dana Gordon-Macey said few in this town of 2,200 people lose sleep over the potential danger.
“I have to assume that they’re keeping our community safe,” she said.