Entergy targets post-shutdown savings at Pilgrim after key NRC approval

U.S. utility Entergy is focusing on post-shutdown cost reductions at Pilgrim and targets all spent fuel stored by 2022, learning from decommissioning and licence transfer progress at Vermont Yankee, Entergy directors told the Fifth Annual Nuclear Decommissioning and Used Fuel conference.

On October 12, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the transfer of the Vermont Yankee plant operating license, including the dry cask Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation (ISFSI), from Entergy to NorthStar.

The approval follows a 17-month review process and marks a significant step forward for the U.S. decommissioning market. Entergy and Holtec have agreed a similar licence transfer transaction for Entergy’s Pilgrim and Palisades plants after they close in 2019 and 2022. Holtec will also purchase Exelon’s recently-closed 636 MW Oyster Creek plant.

The license transfers will allow Holtec to perform immediate decommissioning under the DECON process, through a new joint venture with SNC-Lavalin. Until recently, operators generally favored the deferred SAFSTOR decommissioning option which allows them to build up funds over decades, but growing demand for decontamination and dismantling (D&D) services has spawned new decommissioning business models.

Announced nuclear plant closures (2018-2025)

                                (Click image to enlarge)

Source: US Energy Information Administration (EIA), September 2018.

The licence transfer approach substantially cuts decommissioning timelines and lowers risks to utilities associated with decommissioning, spent fuel management and site restoration, Susan Raimo, Senior Counsel at Entergy, told the conference in Charlotte on October 1.

Specialist decommissioning operators are able to cut costs and accelerate the potential economic benefits of re-using the site, Raimo said.

"We see this approach as having benefits for both sides. Both for as a utility and for our external stakeholders," she said.

Entergy aims to close the Vermont Yankee licence transfer transaction by the end of 2018, Raimo said.

Northstar plans to begin decommissioning work in 2019 and achieve partial site release, discounting the ISFSI and switchyard, "no later than the end of 2030, possibly even as early as 2026," she said.

Entergy will be able to learn from the NRC licence transfer application (LTA) process and decommissioning activities completed at Vermont Yankee to optimize its plans at Pilgrim and Palisades.

Entergy and Holtec are targeting the submittal of a joint LTA for Pilgrim by the end of October and hope to close the licence transfer transaction by the third quarter of next year, Raimo said.

"It's a significant acceleration of our SAFSTOR schedule. Holtec expects to complete partial site release and partial site restoration…by end of 2027," she said.

Vermont Yankee

The Vermont Yankee license transfer will see NorthStar continue to own or hold the physical plant assets, real estate, decommissioning trust fund, spent nuclear fuel and DOE Standard Contract.

The licence transfer is awaiting approval from the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC review includes areas such as transfer of plant ownership, transfer of Nuclear Decommissioning Trust and Site Restoration Trust, authorisation to operate and decommission and the approval of NorthStar’s proposed site restoration standards.

Started in December 2016, the PUC process has included three rounds of testimonies, over 2,000 discovery requests and the production of over 180,000 pages of documents, as well as signed settlement agreements and memorandum of understandings (MoUs) with all intervening parties except the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).

Settlement deals included financial assurances for decommissioning and site restoration totalling $200 million as well as site restoration standards.

The PUC has said it would issue its order after the NRC ruled on the LTA, Raimo said.

"The case is fully briefed now, we are just waiting for a decision from the PUC," she said.

Pilgrim priorities

A key priority for plant operators is to minimize the duration of fuel transfer activities post shutdown due to the high labor costs associated with monitoring and handling spent fuel and radioactive components. 

Running costs for a shutdown nuclear plant with fuel still in the cooling pool are typically between $25 million and $30 million per year, according to some estimates.

               Nuclear decommissioning costs by category (indicative)


Data source: Electric Power Research Institute's 'Decommissioning Experiences and Lessons Learned' report. (2011).

The Pilgrim plant is scheduled to shut down on May 31, 2019 and Entergy has targeted all spent fuel on pad and protected within three years of shutdown, John Ohrenberger, Entergy’s Decommissioning Director at Pilgrim, told the conference.

"If the transaction doesn't take place for some reason- financial, regulatory, whatever- we want to be ready for a SAFSTOR operation," he said.

Entergy plans to expand IFSFI capacity at Pilgrim and has been conducting a geotechnical survey for a potential new IFSFI pad, Ohrenberger said.

The current storage pad can hold 40 dry fuel casks each of which can hold 68 fuel assemblies, equating to a capacity of around 2,700 assemblies. To date, 1,150 assemblies are stored on pad with around 3,000 remaining in the spent fuel pool, equating to around 4,150 assemblies.

Entergy may announce whether it will build a new pad or expand the current pad capacity in the coming weeks, Ohrenberger said.

Entergy has predicted around 80 engineering changes (ECs) for the Pilgrim plant, including around 30 abandonments, based on learnings at Vermont Yankee, he said.

Labor costs

The operator has also used learnings at projects such as Vermont Yankee to optimize the transition into the "phase 1" post-shutdown period.

"We have to protect the [operations and maintenance] budget that Entergy owns. We have to protect the [decommissioning trust fund] that the site has to work with after shutdown," Ohrenberger noted.

The Pilgrim plant employs around 620 staff during operations and Entergy predicts the staff count to fall by around a half for the "phase 1" post shutdown period, he said.

Vermont Yankee was shut down in December 2014 and staff numbers were cut from 650 during operations to around 315 in the first quarter of 2015 and then reduced to 150 by the second quarter of 2016, according to a presentation by Entergy and Northstar published in December 2016.

Entergy will look to optimize staff deployment at Pilgrim while absorbing talent into the company, Ohrenberger said.

"That's a big goal for us, to keep as many nuclear people as possible within Entergy," he said.

Holtec will also explore employment opportunities for Entergy employees “dislocated” by the closure program at Pilgrim and Palisades, Kris Singh, Holtec President and CEO, said in a statement in August.

As new larger specialist decommissioning operators seek further deals to build up their portfolios, a number of plant sale opportunities remain.

Opportunities could include Entergy's Indian Point 2 and 3 reactors, set to close in 2020 and 2021.

Nuclear Energy Insider