NRC takes comment on VY decommissioning report

Audience questions the adequacy of plans and regulations

BRATTLEBORO — Federal regulators set down rules for nuclear power plants to follow.

Entergy pledges to adhere to those regulations - but are they adequate?

Nope, said multiple speakers at a four-plus-hour public meeting held by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Feb. 19.

The NRC came to town to hear public comment on Entergy's Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report (PSDAR), the road map the company intends to follow to decommission the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon over the next 60 years.

Entergy announced in 2013 that it would close the plant for economic reasons by the end of 2014. The plant officially shut down last December. By early January, workers had moved all the fuel rods from the reactor to the spent fuel pool.

A panel comprised of representatives from the NRC and Entergy opened the meeting with a presentation on the federal agency's role in decommissioning and the Louisiana-based company's plan to dismantle the plant and store the spent fuel onsite.

Entergy has opted to decommission the plant under the NRC's SAFSTOR model, which requires the plant be fully decommissioned within 60 years.

The NRC representatives said the commission's review of Entergy's PSDAR includes verifying as feasible the company's plans to complete the decommissioning within 60 years and determining whether those plans comply with regulations.

The commission will also check that Entergy's decommissioning trust fund projections align with decommissioning cost estimates.

The NRC tried to assure audience members that it will continue to stand guard over the decommissioning process even if the commission's presence is reduced for the dismantling of the facility and for the process of storing more than 40 years of spent nuclear fuel on the site.

Many speakers, however, told the NRC that the 60-year SAFSTOR decommissioning model that Entergy has chosen for Vermont Yankee opens the community to more questions than answers.

The first question asked by multiple speakers was why Entergy can't start decommissioning sooner than by its projected date of 2068.

In a “memorandum of understanding” between the company and the state, the company has agreed to start decommissioning 120 days after the decommissioning trust fund - now at approximately $660 million - has adequate money for the estimated $1.24 billion (in 2014 dollars) project.

VY Government Affairs Manager Joseph Lynch told the audience that the plant should be fully decommissioned by 2075 - or sooner, if the fund grows faster than projected.

A key activity for Entergy this year is negotiating the final site-restoration standards with the state, said Lynch.

States can set standards for site restoration that are more stringent than those required by the federal government.

Long-term concerns

While some rejoiced at the news of the plant's closing, others in the community are biting their fingernails over the potential economic fallout of losing, as of now, more than 500 high-paying jobs.

The potential safety and environmental implications of long-term storage of the spent fuel at the VY site, absent a central federal waste storage facility, also had speakers biting their lips.

Speakers questioned whether Entergy's plans for decommissioning were adequate, if the NRC's regulations for merchant plants like VY were adequate, and whether the decommissioning trust fund would ever have adequate funds for the job.

Representatives of state government issued some opinions.

Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia said that the state is pleased that Entergy has met all its commitments outlined in its negotiations with the state.

“There's a lot yet to be discovered,” he cautioned.

Recchia likened the years ahead to buying a new house: Everything looks great, until the new homeowners discover they need a new boiler and roof.

The state has concerns about Entergy's intentions to stop funding emergency planning in the towns around the plant, the company's long-term management of the spent fuel, and its requests to tap into the decommissioning trust fund.

Recchia also asked the NRC to pay better attention to how regulations apply to merchant plants.

“Please step up to your regulator role, because it's really important for Vermont,” he said.

Vermont Department of Health Radiological Health Chief Bill Irwin said the PSDAR contained “inadequate details” that prevented the VDH from fully evaluating potential public-health issues. Nor did the report provide adequate details for emergency planning or assurance regarding funding of the decommissioning trust fund, Irwin said.

Vermont Natural Resources Board Administrator Charles Borie echoed Irwin, saying the PSDAR does not address non-radioactive waste at the site like petrochemicals or asbestos.

He added that the report does not seem to reflect that the company incorporated any comments filed by the state last October.

“The state has not received a response to these comments to date,” said Borie.

Audience members, such as Deb Katz of Citizens Awareness Network, also told the NRC that its regulations for merchant plants were lacking.

VY's merchant plant status determines how the company cleans up the site, she said.

Entergy's hope to use funds from the decommissioning trust fund to pay for spent-fuel management is not a good idea, Katz said.

“Entergy does not have the financial wherewithal to fund the cleanup,” she said.

No nuclear operator does, Katz continued.

Unlike merchant plants, which sell power on the open market, owners of regulated utilities, such as the now-decommissioned Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts, have ratepayers - a collective source of revenue to compensate for decommissioning shortfalls.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, asked the NRC to convene host communities around nuclear plants to learn whether the commission's regulations are still sufficient to protect public health and safety.

This is important because so many plants will come offline soon and so many of them are merchant plants, he said.

The NRC representatives responded that they knew the rules weren't current or “well described.” This has led to the commission taking each decommissioning “case by case” and issuing multiple exemptions. The commission recently restarted its review process for creating new rules.

In response to questions about what happens if Entergy goes out of business before decommissioning of VY is complete, the NRC said it would not let the company walk away. The decommissioning trust fund would receive a new trustee, and the NRC would expect that entity to finish the decommissioning.

Associated Press journalist Dave Gram reported Feb. 11 that Entergy Vice President Michael Twomey told legislators that Entergy would not guarantee that it would pay to complete decommissioning at VY if the process is not complete within 60 years.

According to the AP, Twomey expects more litigation between the state and Entergy if the company does not complete decommissioning in the timeline set forth by the NRC under the SAFSTOR model.

Arnie Gundersen, of Fairewinds Energy Education, said his organization's research has shown that the model for projecting the trust fund's growth is inadequate.

Putting the plant in SAFSTOR for 60 years has no basis in physics, he said. Waiting is about Entergy making a financial decision, Gunderson said - not about reducing employees' exposure risks, as Entergy has said.

In Gundersen's opinion, decommissioning on a shorter timeline will save money. Cleaning up areas like the advanced off-gas building now will ensure that radioactive pollutants from past leaks will have less time to migrate through the soil and water.

Earlier this month, the VDH reported that low levels of strontium-90 had been detected in environmental monitoring wells at the plant.

“Most of the horses are still in the barn,” he said. “Most of the strontium is still in the barn.”

Clay Turnbull, staff member of the New England Coalition, asked Entergy representatives directly: “How much is Entergy planning to pay itself from decommissioning?”

After a long time and more people asking the question, Lynch answered that the company has no profit built into its estimates for decommissioning.

Lissa Weinmann, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, said that Entergy is following the rules, but asked if the rules are good enough.

The country lacks a national nuclear waste policy, she said, noting that the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act didn't foresee the reality many plants now operate under.

The 1982 law established the federal government's responsibility to dispose of nuclear waste from the nation's reactor fleet, but that solution has proved elusive.

The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates taking spent fuel from reactor sites by 2052, Lynch noted in the meeting.

Weinmann pointed out that the DOE has yet to create a national waste depository.

The country's nuclear fleet needs new rules, she said, but the federal government is regulating new situations with old rules.

Weinmann added, VY's spent fuel will remain in dry cask storage on the banks of the Connecticut River indefinitely.

“We are the interim storage facility,” she said.