Reactor operators at Vermont Yankee are gearing up for the nuclear plant’s final shutdown this coming Monday. Among other preparation, they’ve been training on a control room simulator at the company’s corporate offices in Brattleboro.
The simulator, with its wrap-around panels of lights, switches and displays, is an exact replica of the control room at the Vernon plant.
Simulator trainer Brian Stewart points to a bank of knobs and lights - one for each of the 89 control rods that control the nuclear fission in the reactor core. When the shutdown is complete on Dec. 29, each rod will show a reading of zero.
Stewart says the plant has been ‘coasting down’ from 100 percent power since late September. Officials say the shutdown itself should take less than an hour.
"We’ll be starting at about 75 percent power and maneuvering the plant down to separate from the grid so we’re no longer making electricity," Stewart explains. "And then we’ll power the reactor down even further until we get to a point where we insert a manual reactor scram. This will insert all the control rods [so] they won’t be generating any power any longer."
In mid-January the fuel in the reactor vessel will be transferred to the plant’s spent fuel pool, where it will remain, cooling down, until 2019. That’s when Entergy expects to begin moving the spent fuel from the pool into longer-term dry storage in concrete casks on the plant’s 142-acre site.
After that the plant will remain in a dormant state called "Safstor" until there’s enough money in the decommissioning trust fund to complete the job - an estimated $1.24 billion. Estimates vary as to when that will happen. A plant spokesman said this week that the fund would accumulate enough value to start paying for decommissioning in the 2040s.
Plant officials say the final shutdown on Dec. 29 won’t be much different from the refueling outages the plant has managed 30 times in its 42-year history.
"The difference is going to be that we’re not going to refuel and we’re not going to start it up again," says Entergy decommissioning spokesman Martin Cohn.
Cohn says people driving by the plant probably won’t notice that anything has changed.
"The community will feel an impact, because we’re going to be reducing our staff from 550 to 316 on Jan. 19," he says.
Cohn says another layoff will take place in April or May of 2016, when the company hopes to eliminate support for emergency planning in the tri-state region around the plant. The 127 workers remaining after that layoff will be providing security, stabilizing the site and preparing for the long term storage of spent fuel.
Simulator trainer Brian Stewart says it’s sad to see Vermont Yankee close.
"We’re taking a perfectly viable power plant and we are turning it off," he says. "For some of us, that’s a little tragic. You’re going to see it in your electricity prices in the spring," Stewart adds.
Stewart says the impending loss of workers and jobs is already having a negative impact on businesses and nonprofits in the region.