VERNON—As Vermont Yankee starts down the road of decommissioning, one of the biggest complaints has been the lack of a map.
That’s about to change, as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Nov. 19 formally announced its intent to develop new, detailed regulations for decommissioning power plants. An initial public-comment period runs through Jan. 4.
Given their concerns about how the Yankee process has played out so far, Vermont officials say they will “lead the way” on pushing for stronger NRC regulations.
However, because the rule-making process will extend until 2019 — and maybe longer — there’s not much hope that the results will come in time to significantly influence Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning.
“If we’re moving along the way we’re supposed to be moving along, these rules are not going to affect Vermont,” state Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said at a recent meeting. “[But] Vermont is going to affect these rules.”
Entergy ceased producing power at Vermont Yankee at the end of 2014, and the plant is heading into an extended period of dormancy called SAFSTOR. But there is plenty happening, as Entergy has sought regulatory changes on controversial issues such as emergency planning and decommissioning trust-fund spending.
Due to a lack of clear federal decommissioning rules, Entergy has pursued those changes via a series of license amendments and regulatory exemptions.
And that has prompted complaints: The Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel this month declared that keeping up with the interplay between the NRC and Entergy is “difficult for state agencies and effectively beyond the capacity of local or regional government entities.”
The state has challenged many of Entergy’s requests, including its efforts to use the plant’s trust fund for spent-fuel management. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., also has joined the chorus, demanding more state and local input in the decommissioning process.
That will be one of the topics tackled in the NRC’s rule-making efforts, as federal officials said they’ve begun working toward a “more efficient, open, and reliable decommissioning process.”
The new regulations will “establish clear requirements for decommissioning reactors in emergency preparedness, physical security, and fitness for duty, among other areas, thereby reducing the need for exemptions from current [federal] requirements designed for operating reactors,” the NRC said in announcing its “advanced notice of proposed rule-making” on Nov. 19.
Other topics to be addressed include “timeliness of decommissioning” as well as “what constitutes a legitimate decommissioning activity in terms of qualifying for decommissioning funds.” Both are key concerns at Vermont Yankee.
Back-burnered since 9/11
NRC officials said the agency began a decommissioning rule-making process in 2000, but that effort was halted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks necessitated a greater emphasis on security.
Now, however, there is fresh urgency in coming up with decommissioning guidelines: The NRC notes that five reactors have permanently ceased operations since 2013, and three others are slated to do so by 2019.
Crafting new decommissioning regulations, however, will take time. At a Nov. 12 meeting in Vernon, Vermont State Nuclear Engineer Tony Leshinskie laid out a schedule that showed a series of rule proposals and public-comment periods covering 2016, 2017, and 2018, with the NRC’s commissioners getting the final rules and regulatory guidance by 2019.
That schedule is accurate but is not set in stone, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.
“The staff’s current schedule calls for a final rule in 2019, but we acknowledge that the development of new regulations is a multiyear, detailed process and it cannot rule out the possibility of some delays and/or extensions,” Sheehan said.
Indeed, Leshinskie said there are several obstacles that could further delay new decommissioning rules. For example, additional reactor closures could bog down NRC staff and pull them away from drafting regulations.
“They also pointed out that, if they receive a significant amount of public feedback in any of the public-comment phases or public meetings, they may stop and rethink their schedule,” Leshinskie said.
Additionally, the NRC’s commissioners — who have the final say on nuclear decommissioning rules drafted by NRC staff — are not bound by any deadline.
“As for the commission, it will act when it is ready to do so after carefully considering all elements of new regulations,” Sheehan said.
For now, the emphasis is on the NRC’s first public-comment period in the rule-making process. The agency’s notice was published Nov. 19 in the Federal Register, and a public meeting has been scheduled for Dec. 9 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.
From the state’s perspective, there is much to comment on: Recchia said Vermont officials “are asking questions that, frankly, no one has asked before of the NRC.”
In fact, with Entergy administrators looking on during the Nov. 12 VNDCAP meeting in Vernon, Recchia framed the state’s struggle as less Vermont vs. Entergy and more Vermont vs. the NRC.
“The challenges we’re having with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are really a function of how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has structured itself and how it views these things,” Recchia said.
“I want to emphasize that this is not about Entergy,” he said. “Entergy has not asked for anything from NRC or expected anything from NRC that other plants have not received in the past.”