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Vermont officials heading to Washington for NRC sit-down

BRATTLEBORO—Vermont officials are taking their nuclear-decommissioning concerns to Washington.

More specifically, state Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia and state Nuclear Engineer Tony Leshinskie are headed later this month to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s headquarters in Rockville, Md., to meet with a key NRC official.

Recchia, a frequent and vocal critic of the commission’s stances on Vermont Yankee decommissioning, expects to bring up a variety of topics but might focus on a key concern: How to provide more opportunities for state and local input.

“We will talk to them about citizen participation,” Recchia said.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan confirmed the meeting among Recchia and Leshinskie and Bill Dean, who previously was the NRC Region 1 administrator and now serves as director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation.

“Decommissioning certainly will be a topic,” Sheehan said.

Though Entergy and the state reached a shutdown settlement agreement long before Vermont Yankee ceased producing power at the end of 2014, many ongoing disputes relate to decommissioning’s costs, schedule, and public-input process.

Recchia has not been shy about expressing his opinions.

At a June meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, he declared that “what we’re learning is that the NRC process is broken and needs to be fixed, and I fully expect Vermont to be leading that charge with other states.”

At that time, the NRC had just ruled that Entergy can make withdrawals from the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust fund to manage spent nuclear fuel at the plant site — a proposal that’s been challenged by the state.

In the wake of that ruling, Recchia said, “we are just finding out that there is blatant inconsistency between what the NRC is allowing to be taken out of [the trust fund] and what the regulations say can be [taken out].”

In the last week of October, Recchia will get a chance to hash out those concerns face-to-face with Dean, a 30-year NRC veteran who in his previous capacity had overseen regulatory activities in 11 states, including Vermont.

Also traveling south is Leshinskie, who said he expects the discussion will cover a variety of topics.

“We’re going to continue to voice concerns as we’ve stated previously regarding the [Vermont Yankee] emergency planning zone and the use of the decommissioning trust fund,” Leshinskie said.

He added that state officials still are hoping to find a suitable substitute for the nuclear plant’s emergency response data system, known as ERDS. The NRC recently ruled that Vermont Yankee’s ERDS no longer is needed because the plant’s reactor has been defueled.

Sheehan characterized the meeting as “informal in nature.” The session was “suggested by NRC state liaison officers based on the fact that the Vermont officials will be at our headquarters at the time for a biennial conference of state liaison officers from across the country,” he said.

That conference, last held in 2013 not long after Entergy announced its plans to shut down Vermont Yankee, is scheduled to run from Oct. 27 to Oct. 29. Recchia is Vermont’s NRC liaison officer, and Leshinskie is listed as Recchia’s designee.

Entergy is a frequent target of nuclear-power critics in Vermont, but the NRC also has heard its share of criticism, especially as the Yankee decommissioning process has begun to unfold.

In addition to taking heat from state officials, the federal agency has been questioned repeatedly by U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, who on Oct. 14 wrote a letter criticizing the decommissioning process and demanding more public input for his Vermont constituents.

In an email a day after Welch sent that letter, Sheehan responded by saying Vermont “has been engaged throughout the early stages of our Vermont Yankee decommissioning reviews.”

The state “has offered comments on the plant’s Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR) and exemption requests, it has sought hearings on decommissioning-related license-amendment requests filed by the company, and it has testified before the commission regarding possible changes to our decommissioning regulations,” Sheehan wrote.

“Beyond that, the NRC’s state liaison officers communicate with state officials on an ongoing basis regarding our reviews,” Sheehan added. “In terms of the process, the NRC has tried to be as transparent as possible with the state about the status of our activities with respect to Vermont Yankee.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #329 (Wednesday, October 28, 2015). This story appeared on page B2.

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