I’ve read and heard a number of different assessments of Entergy’s fuel bet concerning Vermont Yankee. Unfortunately, people both for and against VY have assessed this bet incorrectly in terms of what they can and cannot do with that fuel once it has been loaded into the reactor. It happens that in one of my jobs at GE, I analyzed possible uses for the spent fuel from the Shoreham nuclear plant. I’d like to clarify what is and isn’t possible, reasonable, and/or cost effective.
Statment #1: Once the fuel has been exposed in the core, it can’t be used or transported to another nuclear facility.
This is not true. Used fuel has been transported from one facility to another. Time is the nuclear engineer’s friend. Fuel that has been out of core for a few years is both less radioactive and quite a bit cooler. With some shielding and a strong cask, the fuel can be moved anywhere in the country. Utilities with multiple reactor sites have taken advantage of larger used fuel facilities and moved fuel from one to the other for longer term storage.
Statement #2: The fuel can easily be used in other facilities.
Also not true. Boiling Water Reactors have several different designs operating in the US today. Only a fraction of them can even consider using the fuel from VY. There are two main constraints. The exact dimensions of the fuel bundle, both height and spacing of the rods is different. In the Entergy fleet of BWR’s only Fitzpatrick (in NY) or Cooper (a reactor they manage in Nebraska) could even consider taking these bundles.
There are two other major issues with using the fuel in a different reactor. First, once the fuel is loaded into a reactor core and run and any significant power level, the ceramic pellets are prone to cracking. This phenomena is well understood and accounted for in normal operation of the fuel. However, to transport fuel to another site, the fuel bundle would be laid on its side and transported by truck, rail, or barge. Any of these methods will subject each bundle to significant vibration. This jostling could significantly shift chips or other pellet fragments within the rods. For this reason, the fuel will have to held to much lower power levels within the core.
Which brings us to the third issue. Nuclear fuel is not a commodity like natural gas or coal. It is a highly engineered product that is designed specifically for the intended application, in this case operating 18 month cycles at Vermont Yankee. While there is an ability to accommodate these designs in other reactors, the fuel will not be operated to its maximum potential. When the low power constraint is added, this fuel will not be easy or cost effective to move it to another facility to extract the remaining energy.
Entergy is placing a significant bet on the future of Vermont Yankee. They are spending a significant sum of money (I’ve seen numbers in the range of $60million.) that they will operate VY at least one more cycle. In fact, the fuel being loaded would still have significant energy left in it at the end of the first cycle. Most fuel runs in core 3 cycles or so; at the end of one cycle there is still more than half the energy left in the fuel. If the fuel was worth $60million, that means Entergy is gambling on getting an additional $30million out of that fuel.
If they are forced to shutdown at only 6 months of operation, the fuel will have only been used for about one-sixth it’s potential so Entergy will be out something around $50million in value. The cost of storage and the transportation to another facility, plus the limited power levels the fuel will be allowed to see after such transportation will severely limit the amount of energy they would extract in a different core. That’s a big bet.
My guess is that Entergy is expecting this to go on for quite some time. No matter what the judge’s decision, the losing side is likely to appeal to a higher court. Too much is at stake on either side. Once the reactor starts up, Entergy can go back to the court and ask for the extension and have some large cost numbers to claim as an impact. They can at least keep generating some income while they fight in court and create a more planned ultimate shutdown.
And, it is in Entergy’s best interest to fight this. There are too many parallels between this fight and the one to keep Indian Point open in New York. Giving up on Vermont Yankee could set a court precedent that will cost them Indian Point as well. I expect the Vermont Yankee saga will keep us entertained for years to come.