Originally published in The Commons issue #377 (Wednesday, October 5, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.
VERNON—As the federal government works to come up with new rules for decommissioning nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch can distill his hopes into two words.
“We’re trying to say over and over again — ‘community involvement, community involvement, community involvement,’” said Welch, D-Vt.
Welch doesn’t believe the nuclear industry has the same goals. That’s why he and 14 other federal lawmakers — including Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. — have sent a letter to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission expressing their concerns about the industry’s recent lobbying.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is pushing for “limited scope” rule-making that doesn’t, for instance, mandate increased state and local input in decommissioning. But the lawmakers’ letter contends that that approach “risks prioritizing the concerns of the nuclear industry over those of our constituents.”
“This feels very much like a brazen effort by the [nuclear] industry to jump ahead of the line,” Welch said.
Vermont Yankee was a divisive presence in the state and region during its 42-year run as an operating nuclear facility. The end of power production at the Vernon plant, however, signaled a new era of conflict.
Controversies — often pitting Vermont officials against plant owner Entergy and/or the NRC — have included proper uses of the plant’s decommissioning trust fund; the scope of emergency planning; and timing of decommissioning.
Those conflicts have stemmed partially from a lack of clear federal regulations for decommissioning nuclear plants. Rather, nuclear licensees are forced to seek a variety of license amendments and regulatory exemptions to make changes after their plants shut down.
So the NRC has started a years-long process to come up with better decommissioning rules, with officials saying the agency “understands that the decommissioning process can be improved and made more efficient and predictable.”
It’s an opportunity for everyone with an interest in decommissioning — including activists, governmental officials, and plant operators — to try and shape that process. NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the commission has received more than 170 comments on rule-making.
As could be expected, there is plenty of disagreement. For example, Vermont officials pushed for more financial regulation of decommissioning nuclear operators, while the Nuclear Energy Institute — a Washington, D.C.-based industry group — countered that such regulations are unnecessary and possibly detrimental to plant cleanups.
The institute argues that there’s already a “proven regulatory framework” for decommissioning, and there’s no need for wholesale change. The group is asking the NRC only to adopt clear regulations so that plant operators don’t have to undertake costly, time-consuming license amendments and regulatory exemptions.
In a Sept. 16 letter addressed to NRC Chairman Stephen Burns, Welch and his colleagues aren’t buying it. “We are concerned by recent requests calling on the NRC to narrow the scope of this rule-making,” the lawmakers wrote.
The legislative group — consisting of Vermont’s delegation, 11 lawmakers from Massachusetts and one from Illinois — laid out their vision for better nuclear plant decommissioning. Their requests include:
• Community involvement should be enhanced, in part by requiring plant operators to include state and local officials’ input in their decommissioning plans.
• Decommissioning trust funds should be used “strictly for statutorily authorized purposes.”
• Spent nuclear fuel must be moved into sealed dry casks “as quickly as possible.”
• All of a plant’s emergency capabilities should remain in place until that fuel transfer takes place.
• A former nuclear site should be “returned to beneficial use promptly, instead of decades after the plant ceases operations.” The federally approved SAFSTOR program currently allows decommissioning to take up to six decades.
In their letter, the lawmakers argue that “delaying consideration of these important issues would hamper the NRC’s proper goal of comprehensively reviewing and revising the rules that govern the decommissioning process.”
Welch has been heavily involved in the decommissioning debate via his seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over nuclear issues. “The rule-making process is under way,” Welch said. “We have had some positive signals from the NRC that they would take very seriously our request about local government participation.”
But Welch is concerned that the Nuclear Energy Institute “is wanting to basically bifurcate the rule-making process” and overlook his requests. Welch equates it to “the industry charging ahead and the community falling behind.”
Rod McCullum, a Nuclear Energy Institute senior director who handles decommissioning issues, doesn’t see that as a fair assessment. The changes proposed in the congressional letter, McCullum argues, would hamper decommissioning by making it more expensive and less efficient.
“Let’s fix this in a way that makes it more efficient so we can get to what the community and the utility are both interested in, which is safe and timely decommissioning,” McCullum said.
“We’d love to work with the signatories of this letter in that direction,” he added. “But we must look at the unintended consequences as well.”
Sheehan said the NRC isn’t taking a stance on the legislative letter, as staff members are still reviewing the many comments submitted on decommissioning rule-making.
He cautioned that the work of creating new regulations for decommissioning nuclear plants won’t be quick. At this point, the agency’s schedule calls for a final decommissioning rule to be presented in 2019 to NRC commissioners, who must vote before it can take effect.
“We have made clear that the decommissioning rule-making process will take several years, which is not unusual for the development of new regulations, given all of the steps involved,” Sheehan said.
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