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Industry group disputes Vermont’s nuke fears

Nuclear Energy Institute says it is ‘impossible’ for a plant owner to leave a decommissioning project unfinished

VERNON—As states like Vermont push for more say in nuclear-plant decommissioning, an industry group is pushing back.

Rod McCullum, a senior director at the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Energy Institute, says the state’s demands for more public input and more financial regulation could have a negative effect on cleanup efforts at plants like Vermont Yankee.

During a March 30 visit to Brattleboro, McCullum also said the state’s concerns about being left with a big bill at Vermont Yankee are unfounded.

Current regulations and free-market forces, he argues, ensure that a plant operator like Entergy will not “walk away” from a job unfinished.

“That just can’t happen with a nuclear plant,” McCullum said. “It hasn’t happened, and it won’t happen.”

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power 15 months ago, and there has been much debate about how Entergy is going about decommissioning the Vernon plant.

NEI: state concerns misguided and unnecessary

Key controversies have included use of the facility’s decommissioning trust fund, the scope of emergency planning, the timing of decommissioning work, and the role of states and host communities in the decommissioning process.

Vermont officials addressed all of those concerns when submitting comments last month to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is embarking on a years-long revamp of federal rules for decommissioning plants.

Vermont officials — who were joined in the filing by attorneys general from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York — also argued that “woefully inadequate” financial regulations could leave states holding the bag if nuclear plant owners run out of cash for cleanup.

But McCullum, who specializes in used-fuel and decommissioning issues for the Nuclear Energy Institute, took the states to task for positions he characterized as misguided and unnecessary.

First, he disputed the notion that federal regulators would allow a plant operator to leave decommissioning undone.

“It’s impossible for me to conceive a situation where you run out of money, just because, until the last bit of radioactivity is off the site, you’re still an NRC licensee,” McCullum said. “You’re still accountable for your license [...] nobody’s ever walked away from an NRC license, and nobody ever will.”

McCullum balked at the states’ suggestion that nuclear operators should be forced to provide additional financial assurance for decommissioning — possibly as much as 200 percent of a site’s estimated cleanup costs.

“That would complicate the process,” he said. “It would have an effect on operating plants. You’re talking about setting aside money that may not be necessary for [decommissioning] and having very real impacts on very real consumers’ electric bills. Nobody wants to see that.”

While he acknowledged that decommissioning costs can sometimes exceed initial estimates, he said that’s one reason for putting a plant into the extended-dormancy status known as SAFSTOR.

Vermont Yankee is heading into SAFSTOR, which allows up to 60 years for decommissioning.

“Those costs will either be paid by taking advantage of the time in SAFSTOR to let the trust fund accrue interest, or the company will have to reach back to its shareholders,” McCullum said. “The companies don’t want to do that [...] and that’s an incentive for them to manage the funds [correctly].”

SAFSTOR itself has come under state attack, with Vermont officials telling the NRC that plant operators should have a maximum of 10 years to finish decommissioning.

But McCullum argued that there are both financial and radiological justifications for dormancy; on the latter point, he says there will be “less low-level radioactive waste to dispose of” due to natural deterioration of the material over the first five decades of SAFSTOR.

Pushing the feds to take the nuclear waste

McCullum said he understands the desire to have a former nuclear site available for redevelopment as soon as possible. But he contends the biggest obstacle to reuse isn’t SAFSTOR: It’s the lack of a federal repository for spent nuclear fuel, which forces that fuel to remain at plant properties indefinitely.

“The most-effective thing you can do to get that land back faster [...] is to start to engage your representatives in Washington on nuclear-waste disposal,” McCullum said. “The gridlock in Washington has prevented that material from moving.”

McCullum does not believe, however, that the federal government ought to get involved in mandating more public participation in decommissioning.

In the states’ NRC filing, officials wrote that “one of the biggest problems with the current regulations is that they do not provide any meaningful role for host communities, including the host states.”

But McCullum begs to differ, saying there is “very real and meaningful public input now.”

“The NRC is a regulator of safety,” he said. “If you’re asking NRC to regulate [additional] public involvement, you’re now putting NRC requirements on these things like citizen-advisory panels. That doesn’t make them function any better.”

Rather than advocating for wholesale regulatory change, McCullum said his organization has made a “limited-scope” proposal that could be implemented years ahead of the NRC’s current schedule.

The idea, he said, is for the federal government to adopt a clear set of regulations for decommissioning plants so that operators like Entergy can skip the costly, time-consuming process of obtaining exemptions and license amendments.

As an example, he cited Entergy’s controversial — but ultimately successful — request for federal permission to downsize Vermont Yankee’s emergency zone.

Given the decreased risk of accidents at a shut-down plant, McCullum argues, such a change should be automatic.

“How long do we have to have an emergency-preparedness plan for an emergency that can’t happen?” he asked.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #351 (Wednesday, April 6, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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