Connecticut Yankee site in limbo as conservationists keep up hope
Haddam - Throughout the 28 years Connecticut Yankee operated, James McHutchison visited the nuclear power plant regularly for the equipment sales firm he worked for. His periodic visits continued after the reactor was shut down, and he helped form the Connecticut Yankee Conservation Project to advocate for preservation of the 545-acre property.
Until recently, that is.
"Late last summer was the last time I was allowed access," said McHutchison, now retired and a resident since 1975 of Haddam Neck, a section of Haddam separated by the Connecticut River from the rest of the town and the place where the Connecticut Yankee site is located. "A couple of months ago they put up the new security gate, and I got my wings clipped the other day" when trying to visit.
Standing outside the 8-foot-high metal gate off Injun Hollow Road, its unwelcoming message reinforced with security cameras and signs reading "No trespassing" and "This property is patrolled by an armed security force," McHutchison explained his group's view of what should happen there. It's a goal for which he's hoping to enlist more supporters and resources now that the decommissioning, demolition and monitoring has ended and a new crossroads looms.
"In 2000, the company said they would donate the land for conservation, and I'm a great believer in keeping your word," he said. "Because this is a peninsula, with no through roads, it would be an ideal wildlife preserve."
Located between the Connecticut River and the mouth of the Salmon River, the site includes floodplain forests and meadows, rare freshwater tidal marshes, rocky cliffs and upland forests, and is "an excellent stopover for migrating birds," said Shelley Green, director of conservation programs for the Connecticut chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
"We've had our eye on the property for a long time," said Green, who toured the site about a year ago with members of McHutchison's group and representatives of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which owns several other tracts in the area. Those tracts, including 38 acres on Salmon Cove purchased last year from Connecticut Yankee, are part of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge that extends to 36,000 acres of Connecticut River watershed lands in four states.
Andrew French, project manager for the Conte refuge, said the Fish & Wildlife service is "very interested" in securing the property for conservation "if we can reach an agreement on terms and price." Talks between his agency and the company have been taking place for more than a decade, he said.
"It's in an excellent location, at the confluence of the Connecticut River and the Salmon River," he said. "This is, without question, a key piece."
Green said the 545 acres would be a significant addition to the 1,040 acres already preserved in the lower Salmon River. "This property stands out in the whole state as one of the most important areas for conservation," she said. "I would put this site on a very short list."
Connecticut Yankee's signature dome-shaped reactor building, where 110 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity was produced during the plant's life, has disappeared from the site, as have most of the structures that supported it until its shutdown in 1998. Cleanup and remediation took until 2007, followed by seven years of groundwater monitoring that concluded this fall with no findings of significant levels of radiation or other contaminants. In September, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection notified Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co. that its stewardship permit obligations had been fulfilled.
Dennis Schain, spokesman for DEEP, said the agency anticipates issuing a formal Certificate of Completion sometime in 2015.
"The site is clean and can be used for other purposes," he said. "But we certainly would like to see the site preserved."
He added that DEEP is not engaged in any discussions with the owners about a state purchase but is supportive of local efforts to urge the conservancy, Fish & Wildlife Service or other groups to do so. DEEP already owns several adjacent and nearby parcels that would be enhanced by additional conservation land in the area, including Machimoodus and Sunrise state parks on the east side of the Salmon River, and Haddam Meadows and Haddam Island state parks to the west and north, conservation advocates note.
Bob Capstick, spokesman for Connecticut Yankee, said that while the pending certificate is an important juncture, that doesn't mean anything will be happening in the immediate future.
"This is the final milestone in the decommissioning of the reactor site," he said. "But Connecticut Yankee has made no decisions about the future use of the property. All options remain open, and there is no timetable, although we know there is active interest for conservation." He disputed contentions by McHutchison and others that the company made a specific commitment to conserve the property.
Oddly, conservation advocates don't seem bothered by the presence of spent nuclear fuel on the site, accepting that a 5.5-acre portion would have to be carved out of any conservation agreement because it houses 43 dry storage casks filled with radioactive waste. Certainly they'd prefer the waste were in a federal repository that was supposed to have been built years ago, but with no prospects for that to happen any time soon, they are resigned to the waste staying there for the foreseeable future.
"Everybody knows the nuclear waste isn't going anywhere," said Haddam First Selectwoman Melissa Schlag, who counts herself among those who would like to see most or all of the property conserved. She toured the site in November 2013.
French, of the Fish & Wildlife Service, said the presence of the nuclear waste does complicate the prospects for conservation, but he believes the issues could be resolved if the agency obtained an easement on the property rather than assuming ownership. Some limited public access could possibly be included, he said. Such an agreement, French said, would give the company the flexibility it needs to continue its security and maintenance on the spent fuel site, including any changes in those obligations.
Capstick said one of the obstacles to any decision on the property's future is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is revising its security requirements for spent fuel storage sites. Security enhancements made to the site earlier this year, including the new fence and stricter access rules for people outside the company, were in anticipation of that effort, he said.
"We're still stuck with the spent fuel and the security requirements, and we don't know what the future security requirements will be from the NRC," he said. "It puts us in a difficult position to try to sell the site."
The company spends about $10 million annually to maintain security and pay other expenses for the site, Capstick said. The town receives about $1.2 million in taxes on the Connecticut Yankee property, the spent fuel casks and equipment and two remaining buildings on the site.
A final determination about new security rules for spent fuel sites is not expected for a couple of years, according to Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC. One change under consideration is a requirement for installation of a barrier system to prevent vehicles from getting near the spent fuel, "to mitigate the effects of a land-based or waterborne vehicle bomb attack," he said.
Schlag, the first selectwoman, said that ideally she would like to see the bulk of the Connecticut Yankee land preserved and a portion used for a low-impact development such as a solar energy farm that would generate some taxes to make up for the millions lost when the plant closed. She noted that the Connecticut Light & Power transmission lines that once accepted the plant's power are still in place.
Frank Poirot, spokesman for CL&P, confirmed that the transmission lines on Cove Road could be reactivated. The existence of the lines was one reason Connecticut Yankee considered erecting a gas-fired power plant at the site about a decade ago, a proposal that drew neighborhood opposition and was eventually shelved.
"The infrastructure is there to support it," Poirot said, referring to the possibility of a new power generation facility. "It's a great location because it's a short run from there to other transmission lines."
Since the plant closing, the town's tax rate has increased to its current rate of 30.39 mills from a low of 25 mills when Connecticut Yankee was operating. The steep loss of tax revenues, coupled with the burden of the spent fuel, Schlag said, leaves her town at a disadvantage compared to other municipalities. The plant, she said, closed 10 years earlier than originally projected.
"It's easy to accept such a big taxpayer, but it's very difficult to plan for the future when they're not here anymore," she said.
In her discussions with Connecticut Yankee, she said, company representatives have been unwilling to commit to turning the property over to become open space.
"The fate of the property is pretty much up for grabs," she said.
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