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NRC pressed about post-VY emergency planning

Hearing reflects unknown territory for local EMS response

BRATTLEBORO—Answers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about off-site emergency planning after Vermont Yankee shuts down at the end of this year left some audience members scratching their heads.

The commission’s annual public meeting, held in Brattleboro on May 28, brought to the surface fundamental questions about emergency planning and response for communities whose shuttered nuclear site still holds nuclear waste.

Questions raised in conversations following the meeting asked whether the NRC had fully considered granting exemptions to nuclear plant operators wishing to reduce off-site emergency planning and funding requirements.

The NRC requires that operating plants fund emergency planning and participate in drills with responders for territories within the 10-mile-radius emergency planning zone (EPZ) in the event of a radiological accident.

Entergy has asked the NRC that it be released from maintaining the EPZ after the plant closes.

According to NRC staff at the meeting, the spent fuel pool at VY holds seven to eight times the number of fuel rods that the storage pool was designed to hold. Entergy has pledged eventually to move rods from the pool to on-site dry cask storage.

So if the commission grants Entergy, or any nuclear operator, an exemption, then what are the NRC and Department of Homeland Security’s expectations for the level of preparation and emergency planning for towns in the soon-to-be defunct EPZ?

During the public meeting, Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, asked a similar question — will the region need to train for radiological emergencies to the same level it does now?

Robert E. Kahler, NRC Branch Chief of the Emergency Preparedness Inspection and Regulatory Improvements Branch, responded with a yes-no answer:

Emergency planning would not go away altogether, but it would be reduced. On-site response would remain.

According to Kahler, the region would not need the same level of emergency planning for spent fuel as it does for an active plant. Instead, the region could treat the spent fuel in the same vein as an industrial accident, such as a truck carrying radiological medical waste.

He directed Campany to look at what the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had for radiological planning requirements.

An audience member, who wished not to be identified, later said that although the NRC’s advice wasn’t wrong, the commission didn’t seem to have a guidebook for local responders who may need to deal with ramifications of a radiological accident stemming from spent fuel at VY.

Another hot-button topic at the public meeting was the NRC’s statement that after 15 to 18 months, spent fuel will have cooled enough to no longer pose an immediate fire risk.

William Dean, regional administrator for Region 1, told the audience that after a year and a half the fuel rods will have cooled enough that should the spent fuel pool lose water, employees in charge of decommissioning will have time to restore the water before the rods combust.

This information was news to many in the audience.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #257 (Wednesday, June 4, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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