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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Vermont pushes for changes in decommissioning rules

VERNON—Since Vermont Yankee’s 2014 shutdown, it’s become clear that state officials have a long list of complaints about the nuclear-decommissioning process.

So it should come as no surprise that they have an equally long wish list as the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers ways to improve that process.

The state’s requests range from the straightforward — for instance, enhanced public input and emergency planning — to the arcane, such as a deeper analysis of zirconium fire risks.

Vermont officials are hoping to enlist additional support for those positions before a March 18 deadline for initial public comment on the NRC’s decommissioning rule-making.

“We’ve begun an outreach to other states to try and get a united front, basically, on what we’re submitting to the NRC,” said Tony Leshinskie, state nuclear engineer.

Vermont Yankee is transitioning into an extended period of dormancy called SAFSTOR, and plant owner Entergy has sought a series of changes via regulatory exemptions and license amendments. Those changes have big implications for how the company spends the plant’s decommissioning trust fund, and for how much emergency planning is required at Yankee.

Entergy has been following the NRC’s decommissioning guidelines. But some at the state, regional and local levels complain that they’ve been unable to effectively participate in that process because it is so complex and so federally focused.

The NRC expects to address such concerns as it begins to develop new regulations for decommissioning nuclear plants.

During a rule-making process that’s expected to take several years, federal officials say they’ll come up with “clear requirements” on issues like emergency preparedness, security, and decommissioning schedules.

The rule-making process kicked off last fall with a public-comment period. That period initially was set to end in early January, but it was extended until March 18 after many observers — including Vermont’s congressional delegation — lobbied for more time.

Vermont officials have a keen interest in the NRC’s development of new regulations, pledging to “lead the way” on decommissioning changes even though those changes may come too late to have a significant impact on Vermont Yankee.

At a recent meeting of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel in Brattleboro, state Agency of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Trey Martin said officials have been putting in “an enormous amount of work” to craft a cohesive rule-making pitch for the NRC.

That work includes the Agency of Natural Resources; the departments of Public Service, Health and Public Safety; and the attorney general’s office.

“We are working to provide a consistent set of comments from all of the agencies that have a stake in Vermont Yankee decommissioning,” Leshinskie said.

Leshinskie offered a glimpse of the state’s priorities including:

• Emergency planning: The pending downsizing of Vermont Yankee’s emergency zone has been a point of contention, as it will mean the end of Entergy’s funding for states and towns that currently lie within that zone.

State officials believe that policy should change. “We are advocating a continuation of an off-site emergency planning zone and funding for that,” Leshinskie said.

On a related topic, Leshinskie said the state also wants an enhanced analysis of the risks posed by zirconium fires — a risk related to the storage of spent fuel in cooling pools.

• Decommissioning spending: The state has clashed with Entergy and the NRC over what constitutes appropriate spending from Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning trust fund.

Vermont officials don’t think Entergy should use the fund for expenses like insurance, taxes, and spent fuel management.

“We would also like to see a clearer definition of decommissioning trust fund uses,” Leshinskie said.

• Decommissioning timing: The SAFSTOR program has come under fire because it allows up to 60 years for a plant’s decommissioning.

“We are also advocating for a shorter decommissioning period ... namely, we just think 60 years is too long,” Leshinskie said. “We believe that decommissioning can be done sooner, and we would like to see that added to the regulations.”

• Public input: Leshinskie said the NRC should expand opportunities for public comment, including allowing comment on a plant owner’s request for a regulatory exemption.

“We are advocating for expanded opportunities for state and local government and public participation in decommissioning planning,” he said.

• On a related topic, Leshinskie argues that decommissioning citizen advisory panels like Vermont’s should be required by the NRC. But the state favors such a requirement only if the panels are independent, not set up by a plant owner, he said.

Of course, the state won’t be the only entity weighing in on NRC rule-making.

Vermont’s 19-member decommissioning advisory panel likely is too diverse to agree on any recommendations, but Chairwoman Kate O’Connor said she and several other citizen appointees to the panel will be sending comments representing their viewpoints to the NRC.

O’Connor added that she will be participating in a public meeting on the topic scheduled for March 15 at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md.

The nuclear industry also will be a player in the rule-making process.

For instance, a Vermont Yankee spokesman has said decommissioning rules are working but “could be improved,” noting that some NRC regulations don’t differentiate between operating and non-operating reactors.

A federal website for the rule-making process (www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=NRC-2015-0070) shows that more than 50 comments have been submitted so far.

“They have been submitted by individuals but also governmental entities and organizations, such as the American Nuclear Society and the Union of Concerned Scientists,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

Sheehan said common themes in the comments thus far have included emergency planning requirements; decommissioning advisory panels; the use of decommissioning funds; spent nuclear fuel; and “the need for greater engagement with host communities.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #347 (Wednesday, March 9, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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