VERNON — The last cask full of high-level radioactive waste will be loaded by the end of the week at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, and with it, "99.9 percent" of the radioactivity will be out of the plant next month.
During a tour of the plant on Tuesday, which was shut down in 2014 by its then-owner Entergy Nuclear, officials from NorthStar Group Services showed the progress of the past year in demolishing and cleaning up the 640-megawatt reactor, which at one point supplied one third of the state's electrical needs.
Decommissioning started in 2018 and is expected to be completed by 2030, if not earlier.
Scott State, president of NorthStar, said that once the last cask is loaded and placed on the pad of the interim storage facility, with the 58 already loaded casks, the radiological cleanup will largely be completed and traditional demolition remains.
The high level waste to be placed in the last cask are pieces of the reactor core. They are the only plant components, except for the thousands of spent fuel rods from the reactor, that will stay behind in Vernon until the U.S. Department of Energy finally builds a permanent repository for the dangerous high-level waste.
State said that Entergy Nuclear had purchased 59 of the large Holtec casks, and 58 of them were used to store all the spent fuel from the 42 years of Yankee's operation. The 59th was set aside for what is called "greater than Class C waste." It is neither low-level radioactive, which is being shipped to the Texas facility, nor the highest level of radioactivity, such as the fuel rods, which is staying in Vernon for the foreseeable future.
That highly radioactive waste will be first loaded into the cask's interior 'sleeve," which is already positioned in the plant's spent fuel pool. Eventually, the loaded sleeve will be placed into the outer shell and welded shut, and then moved to the nuclear waste storage pad, according to Dan Toegel, a longtime employee at Vermont Yankee and a former control room operator.
State, the NorthStar president, was in Vermont on Tuesday in preparation for a visit and tour from the Texas-Vermont Low Level Radioactive Waste Compact, which will be meeting in Montpelier this Thursday and have a tour of the decommissioning underway in Vernon on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the tour went up to the previously off-limits refueling floor, where the giant hole, which used to be the plant's reactor core, was empty of its highly radioactive material, and waiting further demolition.
State peered down into the 80-foot deep reactor core, and counted progress. The decommissioning project is on schedule and on budget, he said.
The 288,000 gallons of now radioactive water in the spent fuel pool will be shipping out next March, in 14 different rail cars, Toegel said.
Yankee's landmark green turbine building will be torn down next year, and the year after that, the reactor building, he said.
"The reactor building will be the last to go," he said.
The last tour for the media was a year ago, and the company has made a lot of progress taking apart reactor internals and packaging them for shipment to Texas. Currently about 100 people are working at the Vernon site, but once its partner Orano finishes work on the reactor core, that number will drop to 80 people, according to Toegel.
Other auxiliary buildings on the 160-acre site have also been demolished, and on Tuesday, a excavator was tearing down the control room, which was once the nerve center of Vermont Yankee, where plant operators controlled the 640-megawatt reactor.
Corey Daniels, who is directing NorthStar's decommissioning effort, said that 40 miles of cable were connected to the control room. He has worked at Vermont Yankee for 25 years.
The building currently storing the last cask, the containment access building, will be demolished in the coming weeks, since its purpose — preparing casks for placement in the storage facility north of the reactor building — is over. Workers were checking the building for residual radioactivity on Tuesday.
All the other low-level radioactive waste is being shipped to Waste Control Specialists' facility in west Texas, near the New Mexico border.
The overwhelming majority of the nuclear plant is considered low-level waste and is being shipped, rail car by rail car, to Texas.
Some material, such as large tangles of copper cables an excavator was pulling up Tuesday morning, is clean and can be sold for scrap metal, said Toegel.
State, the head of NorthStar, said Tuesday he had first come to Vermont to talk to Entergy in January 2015, just after the plant shut down. NorthStar bought the plant in January 2019, for $1,000, and in exchange got the plant's $506 million decommissioning trust fund and a promise to get it done on budget and decades ahead of the schedule originally set by Entergy.
State's firm is specializing in demolition of power plants — nuclear or fossil fuel. NorthStar is actively demolishing one other nuclear plant in the country — Crystal River in Florida, owned by Duke Energy.
But the other nuclear power plants undergoing decommissioning such as Entergy's former Pilgrim and Indian Point, are being demolished by Holtec, the cask manufacturer, although the waste itself is going to Waste Control Specialists, which is closely affiliated with NorthStar.
Other nuclear reactors shut down and on the verge of decommissioning include Indian Point, Pilgrim, Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Palisades in Michigan, although Scott said there was a move in that state to stop decommissioning and get the plant back on line.
In Vernon, NorthStar crews were not just readying the last cask, but also preparing a large shipment for disposal in west Texas.
NorthStar is working on two fossil fuel plant demolitions, the Summer Street coal-fired plant (also known as the South Boston Power Plant or Pink Elephant) which is located near Boston's seaport. It was built in 1898, State said, and was shut down in the 1980s.
And the firm is wrapping up the demolition and cleanup of a large refinery in Philadelphia, he said. NorthStar had $1 billion in revenue last year, he said.
As Daniels and Toegel, both former Vermont Yankee control room operators, watched the excavator tear apart the control room, they said the sentiment of 10 years of their life spent in that room had passed.
"Now, it's just 'get it done,'" said Daniels. "I made my peace with it."