OPINION: By Shipping Groundwater, Vermont Yankee Takes the High Road

by Guy Page

It rains in Vermont. It rains a lot. And rain contributes to groundwater. Everywhere else in Vermont, groundwater moves subsurface into nearby rivers or lakes, usually with little or no treatment.

But Vermont Yankee is not “everywhere else.” After examining groundwater that had intruded into the lower basements of the facility, Vermont Yankee determined that it contained traces of tritium. Even though the extremely low radiation level of this tritiated groundwater is approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be discharged into public waters, Vermont Yankee made the decision to ship this water to Tennessee for processing.

If Vermont Yankee wanted to discharge groundwater into the Connecticut River, it almost certainly could have done so with the approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire, stormwater and groundwater with harmless levels of tritium is sent right into the ocean. Many other nuclear plants do direct discharge, with the approval and oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, Vermont Yankee has taken the high road by transporting this groundwater to a water treatment plant in Tennessee. Shipping water over 1,000 miles costs more time and money than routing it directly to approved discharge paths, and could cost as much as $1 million per year depending on success in eliminating the sources of intrusion water into the plant’s turbine building.

This is just one more example of Vermont Yankee setting an example for high standards in decommissioning safety practices. The downside is that every dollar spent on shipping is a dollar no longer invested in the facility’s decommissioning trust fund. Less money in the fund means more time must elapse before the site can be reused in the future. The final work of decommissioning — including tearing down the reactor building and removing all radioactive material — cannot begin until the fund accumulates sufficient value, an estimated $1.2 billion. At present, the fund contains about half that amount.

Vermont Yankee is doing its part to be frugal by draining unnecessary systems, minimizing power consumption and reducing workforce. The plant finished its most recent fiscal year about $15 million under budget. Vermont Yankee took out a line of credit of more than $145 million to pay for spent fuel management. But the State of Vermont must also do its part. Officials for the state have suggested or announced a series of Vermont Yankee-related initiatives including “billing back” oversight and monitoring costs that are of dubious necessity to a non-operational nuclear plant, but are guaranteed to draw alarming amounts of money out of the decommissioning fund. Now would be a good time for the state to better prioritize its spending.

The writer is the communications director for the Vermont Energy Partnership, a Montpelier-based coalition of labor, industry, economic development and environmental organizations and individuals supporting clean, affordable, reliable and safe power generation for Vermont. Vermont Yankee is a member of VTEP.

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