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Maine Yankee nuclear station stuck with decades’ worth of spent nuclear fuel

Decades later, Maine Yankee plant stuck with spent nuclear fuel as feds pick up $10M tab  


Thomas C. Zambito, Rockland/Westchester Journal News June 19, 2019  The 11-acre site on a peninsula off the coast of Wiscasset, Maine, is home to what may be the nation’s most expensive storage facility.

At a cost of $10 million a year, the owners of the shuttered Maine Yankee nuclear power plant pay armed guards to watch 60 cement and steel canisters loaded with decades’ worth of spent nuclear fuel, each weighing 150 tons.

When Maine Yankee stopped producing power in 1996, folks in Wiscasset figured it would be a few years before that spent fuel would be shipped to Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, where the federal government was preparing an underground repository for the nation’s nuclear waste.

That never happened. Twenty-three years later, Wiscasset is still waiting.

“For 20 years we’ve heard, ‘Oh, it’s all going to Yucca Mountain, don’t worry about it,'” said Benjamin Rines Jr., a longtime Wiscasset selectman who was around when Maine Yankee was built in 1972. “Well, you know what happened to all of that, and here we are.”

Maine Yankee wrapped up its decommissioning in 2005, one of the first at a nuclear power plant in the U.S.

Early on, the company faced major hurdles. Maine Yankee was forced to take on the job of removing fuel from the reactor and dismantling buildings itself after the contractor it hired could not finish the $250 million job.

But the effort is still considered an achievement in a nuclear power industry that once saw decommissioning as a 60-year job.

Maine Yankee leads the way

Techniques used at Maine Yankee are now being applied by a new generation of decommissioning companies that have promised to match the eight years it took Maine Yankee to tear down its plant.

A hot-spot removal program used radiation detection equipment to identify for removal any pipes and valves with high levels of radiation, so workers would be spared exposure to dangerous doses of radiation.

And in 2004, explosives were used to demolish the plant’s 150-foot containment dome, the first time that was done at a nuclear power plant, according to Maine Yankee. It created 25 million pounds of rubble.

Three miles of pine forest separate Paul Berkowicz’s ranch-style home from a cluster of towering canisters on a concrete pad containing one of mankind’s most dangerous substances.

For decades, the 68-year-old retired educator has lived and worked near the Oyster Creek Generating Station, the nation’s oldest operating commercial nuclear power plant until it stopped energy production in September.

But while the plant’s decommissioning was labeled a success, efforts to redevelop portions of the 800-acre site on which it stood have fizzled. And many don’t see any prospects ahead until the spent fuel is gone.

The spent fuel installation sits behind a chain-link fence on the 180-acre Bailey Point Peninsula, where the plant’s reactor was located. The canisters there are said to be warm enough in winter to melt snow.

“The surrounding communities are stuck with a spent fuel installation, which is safe and secure, and I don’t think anybody doubts that, but it’s an impediment to any future use of this property,” said Don Hudson, the chairman of Maine Yankee’s Community Advisory Panel. “Once it’s out of there, then you can imagine a number of things happening.”

Maine Yankee donated 200 acres to the Chewonki Foundation for use as a nature preserve and walking trails as part of a 1999 settlement agreement, which allowed Maine Yankee to increase charges to ratepayers so it could move ahead with the decommissioning. And some 430 acres were eventually sold to a developer who specializes in “challenging” properties.

So far, though, there has been no development.

$472M in payouts

A 2007 referendum proposal to build an energy plant that turned coal into gas was shot down by voters.

In the interim, the owners of Maine Yankee and two other Yankee plants decommissioned in Connecticut and Massachusetts have won some $472 million after suing the federal government for failing to create an underground repository for the nation’s nuclear waste, as it had promised.

Yucca Mountain was supposed to be ready by 1998, but those efforts stalled amid political opposition from Nevada lawmakers and environmentalists.

As part of the 1999 agreement, Maine Yankee sued the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to recover the money ratepayers had, through the years, kicked in for the plant’s decommissioning.

“Had they [the DOE] met their obligation, all of the fuel would have been gone by 2004 and Maine Yankee as a single-asset company would have been out of business by 2008,” said Eric Howes, the director of public and government affairs for Maine Yankee.

Public pension funds invested with J.F. Lehman
J.F. Lehman’s $883 million fund received at least $126.5 million from variouspublic employee retirement funds that may have invested in nuclear decommissioning projects through J.F. Lehman & Co.

Economic challenges

With Maine Yankee no longer making electricity, Wiscasset was left with a gaping hole in its budget.

The town took in nearly $12 million a year in taxes from Maine Yankee, more than 90 percent of its tax base. In 2005, the year the decommissioning was finished, the total was $1 million and last year it was closer to $700,000, according to town figures.

Taxes had to be raised. Municipal jobs went unfilled. And the village started charging for sewer service.

Similar scenarios have played out in towns across the U.S. — in places like Zion, Illinois, and Vernon, Vermont — when nuclear power plants shut down, leaving communities with economic challenges.

Wiscasset was helped by long-term investing ahead of the shutdown that left some $12 million in reserve, money used years later to keep taxes down, said Rines, the selectman.

“It was always the thought of the town that we would put it away for a rainy day when we needed it, and the rainy day showed up a lot quicker than we thought,” said Rines, 66.

Wiscasset remains a busy pass-through for travelers using Route 1 on the way to Boothbay and Bar Harbor. Some will stop in at Sarah’s, where “The First Ingredient is Love,” or Red’s Eats across the street for a lobster roll.

Maine Yankee’s spent fuel is located some 5 miles away, past car dealerships, Big Al’s Fireworks and a welcome sign that announces Wiscasset as “The Prettiest Village in Maine.”

After the plant shut down, Hudson, then the director of the Chewonki Foundation, was asked to lead Maine Yankee’s community advisory panel. The company arranged for Hudson and others to visit Yucca Mountain to see the underground rail tunnels where Maine Yankee’s spent fuel would be sent to cool down.

“It’s out in the middle of a vast desert about as far away as you can be from anywhere,” Hudson said. “If we can’t put it there, I don’t know where we’re going to put it.”

These days, the panel meets just once a year. Its primary business is drafting a letter to federal lawmakers urging them to back legislation written to aid towns stuck with nuclear waste.

“We write the delegation, we reference the bills, we encourage them,” Hudson said. “We’re basically the cheerleaders for moving this stuff along, and we’re trying to give them the moral courage and public support that says, ‘We’re with you. We know this is really difficult. We encourage you to tackle it.’ ”

June 20, 2019 - Posted by | USA, wastes

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