Can communities engage in a policy-less environment?
Jeffery Lewis, right, the head of the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities, was a panelist along with James Hamilton of the National Spent Fuel Collaborative at a conference in Amherst, Mass., on Oct. 22.

Can communities engage in a policy-less environment?

Windham Regional Commission shares experience of planning for the economic loss of Vermont Yankee

For the nation's 61 nuclear power stations, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has policies upon policies upon policies, and then a few more policies just for good measure.

Yet the nuclear industry's regulatory body hasn't developed rules and guidelines for plants' closures.

By the end of a six-year span starting in 2013, six nuclear plants will have closed. Four will have opted for a 60-year decommissioning process.

The NRC has resorted to releasing case-by-case exemptions and rules as plant operators request them.

Creating policy piecemeal raises questions: will the creation of policy, nuclear plant by nuclear plant, lead to a mismatched national patchwork?

How will the federal government ensure an even and equitable playing field for industry and communities without a national policy to create continuity?

And, how do local communities engage in the decommissioning process for a local plant at the federal or state level without a playbook?

A lack of a shared national policy creates uncertainty in nuclear host communities, said Jeffrey Lewis, the head of the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities and former executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

One shared public policy can result in shared solutions and clear, expected outcomes, rather than each nuclear site coming up with its own plan, he added.

The NRC is in the infancy of drafting a national policy. These new rules, however, said experts like Lewis, are years away.

Regardless, host communities may not get a seat at the drafting table.

A country in desperate need of a conversation

Local communities like Windham County are feeling the absence of such a policy.

Windham Regional Commission (WRC) Executive Director Christopher Campany outlined the commission's questions and concerns on the decommissioning of Entergy's Vermont Yankee plant in Vernon.

Campany spoke to an audience of more than 40 people at a conference on challenges facing nuclear host communities. The Institute for Nuclear Host Communities sponsored the afternoon gathering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on Oct. 21.

The country desperately needs to have a conversation around decommissioning and how it effects host communities, Campany said.

“When you sit where I sit, it is amazing to be at a point where you're decommissioning a plant and realize there is no national decommissioning policy,” Campany said. “And that they [the NRC] do this through a process of license amendments or exemptions. It's just a mess.”

In the commission's case, it has sought outcomes that will support the fiscal well-being of towns and the return of the plant site to greenfield status so it can be reused for industrial purposes, Campany said.

In his opinion, this current generation, which has benefited from VY's operation, has a responsibility not to burden future generations, he said.

Health and safety remain the purview of the NRC, he said. The WRC has focused on what will happen to the region on economic or social levels and on site reuse.

The commission hasn't done so alone. The Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and its subsidiary, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, established a Post-VY Task Force four years ago. The task force conducted research on the ripple effects of the plant's closure and released a report in March 2012.

According to Campany, before Entergy announced the plant's closure in 2013, VY employed approximately 620 workers in the tri-state area. The plant's payroll was approximately $65.7 million.

VY accounted for 2 percent of Windham County's employment but 5 percent of its earned income.

The plant and employees donated approximately $300,000 to $400,000 to nonprofit organizations in the county each year.

Beyond the economic loss, Campany noted the painful loss of VY's employees, who volunteered in their communities, and the loss for their spouses and children, who also participated in their local communities and schools.

“There's a lot of social capital there,” said Campany.

Of the nearby towns, Vernon will feel the plant's absence first and the most. Campany said that VY's workers (85), their spouses (61), and their children (129) collectively account for 12.4 percent of the town's population.

Entergy taxes paid to Vernon accounted for 48.5 percent of the town's tax receipts in the 2011-12 tax year, he said.

Many towns will feel the ripple effect of the loss of jobs and disposable income. The $100,000 average salary at VY far exceeds the average local wage.

In addition to losing the 620 jobs at VY, Campany said, more than 400 other local jobs that grew up around VY's economic activity are also projected to disappear. He expects many of those jobs will be in the service fields - jobs where people generally have fewer economic resources.

So what? What do these local ramifications have to do with the lack of a national decommissioning policy?

Right now, local communities have little to no voice in the decommissioning process, a reality that has stymied some of WRC's attempts to affect the rate of change facing the region post-VY, Campany said.

The waiting game

Entergy has chosen to decommission VY under the NRC-regulated model SAFSTOR, which allows 60 years for decommissioning.

Based on some of the company's own numbers, said Campany, this decommissioning method is expected to create a “precipitous drop” for the community.

WRC has long advocated immediate decommissioning, however, which would produce “a more gradual slope,” Campany said.

Immediately decommissioning the plant provides greater economic certainty for the community, he said. It is also less expensive, has less regulatory costs, and has the potential to create less radiological waste.

According to Campany, based on Entergy's own estimates, immediate decommissioning is expected to cost $979.9 million, while SAFSTOR is expected to cost $1.24 billion by Entergy's estimates.

When Entergy bought VY in 2002, it also inherited the existing Decommissioning Trust Fund designed to pay for a plant's dismantling, Campany said. Ratepayers paid into the fund when the plant was owned by a consortium of utilities. Entergy, a merchant plant that sells to the open market, has not added additional money.

Without ratepayers to bear decommissioning costs, some merchant plants have decided to stretch out decommissioning to avoid large up-front costs.

Without new investment, Campany said, the fund must grow faster than inflation. As the plant enters a 60-year SAFSTOR process, the fund must also grow faster than inflation and faster than dismantling and maintenance costs.

The stakes are high, said Campany.

Decisions made now will affect the standard of decommissioning and site reuse 60 years into the future, he said.

In his opinion, many of the questions around VY's decommissioning remain unanswered, and he asked how does the local community become part of the decision making.

“I will knock the NRC because the process is bad,” Campany said. “It's virtually impossible to meaningfully engage.”

While the public can submit comments to the NRC, according to Campany, “It's a very opaque process.”

The process makes it hard for local communities to contribute to the debate, he said.

“NRC is making policy as it goes along,” he said.

Compared to other federal agencies, the NRC is less open to accommodating public participation, Campany said. The WRC just wants the same footing that the NRC gives to industry players, he said.

“The nation's nuclear policy is fundamentally broken,” he said.

One unanswered question Campany has: who pays to decommission if plants' trust funds are insufficient for the job after 60 years?

“It's reasonable to ask: Will the decommissioning trust funds ever be sufficient to decommission plants?” he said.

State shares concerns

Anthony Leshinskie, Vermont's nuclear engineer and decommissioning coordinator, noted that the state feels some of Campany's frustration.

According to Leshinskie, the NRC has two pathways for a plant operator to change its operating license.

Broadly, a license exemption provides the operator with a break from complying with a portion of its license, he said. A license amendment changes how the operator complies.

Amendments provide states with the opportunity to petition the NRC to participate, Leshinskie said. Exemptions do not.

Leshinskie sees a bigger issue at work.

The nuclear industry and the NRC operate under contexts that no longer apply to the industry, he said. For example, in its early days, the industry assumed nuclear plants would have little need to store spent fuel. Why? Because it had formed actions and policies around reprocessing - reusing - nuclear waste.

That is not the reality, he said.

Federal regulations also assume that nuclear plants are public utilities with a captive base of ratepayers, Leshinskie added. Many plants, however, have converted to merchant plants operating in the wholesale energy market, as Vermont Yankee did with its sale to Entergy.

The NRC itself is also starting a “reallocation of resources,” or a reorganization, Leshinskie said. A number of years ago it hired more staff in anticipation of a nuclear renaissance. That, too, did not come to pass.

In a document about NRC's Project AIM 2020, the commission discusses changing in part to “rightsize” and “streamline the process.”

As part of that process, “Public engagement needs to improve,” Leshinskie said.

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