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State officials vexed with VY process

DPS Chair Recchia wants NRC to fix its regulations for decommissioned plants

BRATTLEBORO—A theme of frustration with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) emerged during the June 25 meeting of the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.

While NRC-inspired angst is common amongst anti-nuclear watchdogs, the most angst-filled comments during the meeting came from state officials.

“I’m becoming less and less patient with the NRC’s approach to these things,” said Commissioner of the Department of Public Service Christopher Recchia.

He said that Entergy followed the NRC’s regulations as the owner of a nuclear power plant should. Entergy owns Vermont Yankee (VY), a boiling water reactor in Vernon. The plant shut down last December.

The problems, Recchia continued, stemmed from the commission itself and its regulations around plants that have started decommissioning.

The state is still waiting to hear from the commission about reductions granted by the NRC to VY’s emergency planning zone (EPZ) and emergency response data system.

Earlier in June, the NRC granted two exemptions to the company regarding use of money in the decommissioning trust fund. The company’s first request, was to use money for spent-fuel management. The second request asked for a waiver to the NRC’s 30-day notice requirement.

According to NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, the commission’s regulations restrict the use of decommissioning trust funds to specific decommissioning activities.

“Generally, this work involves the radiological decontamination and dismantlement of the facility,” he wrote in an email. “In addition, the NRC requires 30-day notice for withdrawals for non-decommissioning expenses.”

VY’s decommissioning is estimated to cost $1.24 billion in 2014 dollars. Reports filed with the NRC in March documented the plant’s decommissioning fund balance at $664.56 million.

According to Sheehan, “Entergy requested the use of a portion of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant decommissioning trust fund deemed to be above the NRC-required minimum amount to cover spent fuel management expenses.”

“The company also asked for permission to make such withdrawals without prior NRC approval,” Sheehan wrote.

Granting such exemptions to owners of nuclear plants is not unprecedented, wrote Sheehan.

The NRC has approved similar requests at Kewaunee, San Onofre, and Crystal River nuclear power plants.

Sheehan said, “The NRC will continue to review the status of the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust fund on an annual basis to ensure it meets the agency’s requirements.”

The federal regulatory body made its decision after reviewing VY’s site-specific decommissioning cost estimate and cash-flow, wrote Sheehan.

“[The NRC] determined that the amount of money projected to be available to pay for decommissioning work is sufficient such that the use of a portion of the decommissioning trust fund for spent fuel management activities will not prevent the company from performing the required cleanup of the site.”

Entergy decided to decommission VY through a process called SAFSTOR. The NRC allows up to 60 years to complete dismantling through SAFSTOR.

According to Anthony Leshinskie, State Nuclear Engineer and Decommissioning Coordinator, the state has a hearing before the Atomic Safety Licensing Board on the NRC’s exemption to use the trust fund for spent fuel management. The hearing is scheduled for July 7.

Recchia said that the state is disagreeing with the NRC over trust fund expenditures.

“We’re not getting any traction with the NRC about this,” Recchia said.

Vermont ratepayers funded the account and so the state is taking an interest in how the money is spent, he said. Entergy is guided by a master trust agreement that dates back to when it bought VY in 2002.

The state and Entergy didn’t reach agreement early on regarding the trust fund when it created a separate decommissioning agreement with the company in 2013, he added.

Now, the state is finding “blatant inconsistency” in what the NRC is allowing nuclear plant owners to take out of the fund and what is in regulations, Recchia continued.

The fund is for decommissioning, he said. Not taxes or spent fuel management. Yet applying for exemptions adds twists and turns to the process.

Exemptions create unanticipated changes to what the state expects regulations to allow and what the NRC eventually sanctions.

“It’s unbelievable what the NRC is doing,” Recchia said.

During a presentation by dry cask manufacturer Holtec International, Recchia made points about the NRC’s waste confidence rule.

The rule views storing nuclear waste in the plant’s spent fuel pool as safe as storing waste in dry casks.

Recchia said the NRC’s determination on fuel stability and safety is based on seismic controls. The commission refuses to consider if the fuel in the pool is as safe as in casks during other events like a terrorist attack.

If the fuel remains as safe in the pool as in dry casks, why bother buying the casks? Recchia asked.

“Safety is a multidimensional concern,” responded Dr. Kris Singh, Holtec president and CEO.

In a private residence, people may take different approaches to protecting against fires than against intruders, he continued.

“Dry storage is superior to wet storage in terms of terrorist attacks” and fire, Singh said.

Singh said he interprets the NRC regulations as reflecting the spent fuel pool as safe in the “NRC’s world.”

As a consumer, look at what part of safety is important to you, he said. According to Holtec’s calculations, its dry casks remain intact for 300 years.

“But wet storage has worked, there are 700 [spent fuel pools] around the world that store fuel,” Singh added.

Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Christopher Campany asked Recchia if Vermont hoped to organize host communities to have a greater voice in what is mostly a decommissioning process dictated by the federal government and plant owners.

Campany said he participated in a recent NRC webinar. The NRC officials said during that event that the trust fund can not pay taxes.

If, for some reason, a merchant plant owner like Entergy can’t continue to manage the spent fuel, the NRC told webinar participants that it assumed the federal Department of Energy would take over the fuel.

This was more assuming than Campany felt comfortable with.

Recchia responded, yes, that the Attorney General’s office was in talks with AGs in other host states.

The state’s frustration is not with Entergy, Recchia stressed. It’s with the NRC’s processes and regulations.

“It’s broken. It needs to be fixed and I fully expect Vermont to be leading that charge with other states,” he said.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel’s next full panel meeting is in September. In July and August, a smaller sub-committee will meet to discuss the panel’s advisory responsibility, topics for investigation, and its process for developing recommendations to the Legislature.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #312 (Wednesday, July 1, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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