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Feds say Entergy can pull plug on VY alert system

Vermont, U.S. government at odds over interpretation of law that created monitoring system in the aftermath of Three Mile Island

VERNON—Entergy can eliminate a direct emergency data link between Vermont Yankee and the federal government, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided.

By unanimous vote on Oct. 1, NRC commissioners denied Vermont’s appeal of Entergy’s deactivation of the Emergency Response Data System — also known as the ERDS — at the Vernon plant.

While state officials argued that ERDS remains important due to the risk of radiological accidents from spent fuel stored at the plant, the NRC says the data system is required only at facilities with operating reactors. Vermont Yankee ceased producing power Dec. 29.

“We are pleased that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected the filing from the state of Vermont and affirmed the earlier ruling by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board,” Vermont Yankee spokesman Martin Cohn said in a prepared statement. “It confirms that our position on this issue is correct. We remain focused on the safety of the facility and the community.”

Vermont Public Service Board Commissioner Chris Recchia reacted with disappointment, saying there is a “fundamental disagreement” between the NRC and the state over the danger presented by Yankee’s spent fuel.

While internal alert systems remain at the plant, “the problem is that, if something happens at the site, you don’t want to have to be at the site to figure out what’s going on,” Recchia said.

The Oct. 1 ruling does not affect the ongoing dispute over other, more dramatic emergency changes proposed at Vermont Yankee.

Entergy is seeking reduction of the Emergency Planning Zone — now a wide circle touching three states — to the boundaries of the plant site itself. Along with that would come the end of mandatory funding for emergency operations in the affected towns and states.

Those changes are still up in the air, as Vermont officials have appealed Entergy’s proposals.

Rather, the NRC decision is strictly limited to the ERDS, a relatively obscure mechanism at Vermont Yankee, but one the state saw as important enough to fight over.

Origins in Three Mile Island accident

The origins of the Emergency Response Data System can be traced to Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, after which the NRC “recognized a need to improve its ability to acquire accurate and timely data on reactor-plant conditions during emergencies,” according to federal documents.

Hence ERDS, designed as a “direct electronic data link” between nuclear-plant operators and the NRC’s operations center.

A 1991 NRC rule establishing ERDS said the system is designed to “allow the NRC to monitor critical parameters during an emergency [...] at operating power reactors.” However, the rule also exempted “all nuclear power facilities that are shut down permanently or indefinitely” from participating in the ERDS program.

That wording is key in the Yankee case, as Entergy maintained its ERDS system was no longer needed after the Vernon plant ceased operations. The NRC’s staff has agreed with that stance; in fact, the agency has produced guidance saying administrators of a permanently shuttered nuclear plant – after performing their own analysis of emergency systems – may retire the alert system without prior NRC approval.

That’s what happened at Vermont Yankee: Entergy in February shut down its alert system after concluding that “removing ERDS would not reduce the effectiveness of the Vermont Yankee emergency plan,” federal documents show.

Even prior to that decision, though, the state had opposed elimination of the alert system and had filed a petition to intervene and a request for a hearing on the matter. The state asked that Entergy either continue to maintain ERDS or else provide a similar, alternative system as long as spent fuel remains in a pool in Vernon.

Vermont officials argued that elimination of the ERDS system at Yankee “violates Entergy’s regulatory duty to ensure public safety because [...] the lack of timely information will hinder the state’s response” in the event of an emergency.

Furthermore, “Vermont asserts that its Radiological Emergency Response Plan depends on the ERDS link to provide information during an emergency,” the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board noted.

In January, a majority of the licensing board — a quasi-judicial arm of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — rejected Vermont’s arguments as inadmissible.

Requiring the continued operation of the alert system at a reactor that’s been permanently shut down, the majority’s decision said, would be “inconsistent” with federal regulations.

Vermont officials subsequently appealed the licensing board’s ruling. In doing so, the state reached back to the NRC’s initial ERDS rule in 1991, arguing that exemption from the alert program applied only to nuclear plants that were shut down at the time that rule was made — not to plants, like Yankee, that have shut down since.

The NRC commissioners disagreed and, on Oct. 1, held a brief voting meeting to deny Vermont’s appeal. The commissioners’ written opinion finds that the state has raised issues that are beyond the scope of the current proceeding.

Commissioners also say the state “misreads” the federal ERDS regulations for shut-down nuclear plants. Given the decreased risk for serious accidents at a plant where the reactor has been de-fueled, the commissioners write, it makes sense that there would be no need for the ERDS.

“Compared to a reactor accident, a spent fuel pool accident is a slower-moving event with far fewer parameters for a licensee to monitor, fewer kinds of potential accidents, and more time available to take mitigative and corrective actions,” the NRC decision says.

“Moreover, without an operating reactor in the picture, the entire focus of the licensee’s staff can be on the spent fuel pool. And once a reactor has shut down, the potential for a release from a spent fuel pool will diminish with time as the decay heat of the fuel drops, given that no fresh spent fuel will be added to the pool. It is reasonable, therefore, to read the [ERDS] rule exemption as applying to facilities that have permanently shut down reactor operations and defueled their reactors.”

While there was no formal dissent to the Oct. 1 ruling, there was a footnote: NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran said he does not necessarily agree with the government’s current ERDS regulations and urged a review as the NRC undertakes new rule-making for decommissioning nuclear plants.

“I am sympathetic to the state of Vermont’s view that licensees should maintain those aspects of ERDS that transmit spent fuel pool conditions or are relevant to a potential spent fuel pool accident until the spent fuel is removed from the pool or there is no reasonable risk of a zirconium fire,” Baran wrote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #326 (Wednesday, October 7, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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