BRATTLEBORO — There was nothing new in a response letter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to concerns raised by Vermont Congressman Peter Welch about Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
On Oct. 14, Welch sent a letter to the NRC identifying a number of issues for which he wanted clarification. They included: the authorized uses of decommissioning trust funds; the opportunity for public and state involvement in the NRC's decisions concerning Entergy's management of the site; the decision to allow SAFSTOR for the plant rather than immediate decommissioning; and Entergy's responsibilities regarding the emergency planning zone around Vermont Yankee.
"Please be assured that the NRC is committed to overseeing the safe and secure decommissioning of Vermont Yankee," wrote Stephen G. Burns, the commissioner of the NRC. "Regarding State and local stakeholder involvement in the decommissioning process, we recognize that States and local communities have a strong interest in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants within their boundaries. NRC regulations provide interested parties the opportunity to comment on the licensee's Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, which includes decommissioning planning, schedule, cost and environmental impact information, and is submitted to the NRC and the affected State(s) prior to or within two years following permanent cessation of operations.
Welch told the Reformer that the letter from the commissioner is "tone deaf. They just don't get it."
Since its inception, said Welch, the NRC has been delegated with monitoring the safety of operating nuclear power plants, but now it is moving into new territory, with Vermont leading the way.
"Vermont Yankee is one of the first of many to be decommissioned," said Welch. "The NRC has to make a decision on whether it will help or hurt these communities in their efforts for economic revival. This is a question we are facing in southern Vermont, but many of my colleagues are also facing in their districts."
Welch said the NRC has a history of facilitating the nuclear industry, but now it's time for the NRC to facilitate the communities that have been the hosts of nuclear power plant.
"These communities have given so much for so long. We need policies that will give them a fair shot going forward. The NRC is not doing that."
The NRC needs to work with Windham County and the state to ensure the site is reclaimed sooner rather than later and not allow Entergy "to play fast and loose" with the decommissioning fund.
"We've got a long fight ahead of us. What I have to do is double down with our local leaders and my colleagues here in Congress. I am going to do all I can to get a congressional coalition to advocate for these communities.
Along with monitoring the NRC's rulemaking process, Welch said Congress also needs to consider passing legislation mandating the NRC do more to help host communities.
The state and the public also have the opportunity to comment on the plant's license termination plan and the NRC takes public comments during hearings on the PSDAR and the LTP. In February of this year, the NRC was in Brattleboro, hosting a public meeting on the PSDAR, noted Burns.
"The staff is currently reviewing this report, as well as the public comments it received. This review is expected to be completed in December 2015, at which time the NRC will determine whether the PSDAR contains the information required by regulation. The NRC staff will also address the public comments received, as appropriate."
A public meeting on the LTP will be held two years prior to the license termination date.
Burns also noted the formation of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel.
"While licensees are not required to create a community advisory board, NRC decommissioning guidance discusses the creation of a site-specific community advisory board and provides recommendations for methods of soliciting public advice and contains useful guidance and suggestions for effective public involvement in the decommissioning process that could be adopted by any licensee. ... This can be a forum for productive dialogue among the State, the licensee, and other interested parties."
As part of the state's involvement in the process, Burns steered Welch's attention to a memorandum of understanding reached between Entergy the Vermont Department of Public Service and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
"In addition, the NRC maintains an active State Liaison Program, which provides States with opportunities for open communication with the NRC to make comments, ask questions, and express concerns at any time."
Of ongoing concern to Welch and others has been the use of the plant's decommissioning trust fund, which is intended "for legitimate decommissioning activities consistent with the definition of decommissioning under NRC regulations."
Any use of the fund for ancillary activities, such as site restoration or spent fuel management, by the licensee requires a regulatory exemption.
"On June 23, 2015, the NRC staff published in the Federal Register notice that it had granted Entergy an exemption from NRC regulations that would allow Entergy to withdraw decommissioning trust funds to pay for spent fuel maintenance."
However, noted Burns, use of decommissioning trust funds was the subject of a recent decision by an NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which is now before the Commission in its adjudicatory capacity, and is also the subject of a lawsuit in the D.C. Circuit.
"The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has granted the state of Vermont's request for a hearing on whether Entergy Vermont Yankee should be permitted to make withdrawals from the Decommissioning Trust Fund without providing the NRC with 30 days' prior notice, as permitted by NRC regulations," said Martin Cohn, senior communications specialist for Vermont Yankee Decommissioning, in September. "However, the ASLB did not render a decision on the merits of the arguments put forth by the state of Vermont. Entergy is reviewing its legal options and will make a determination within the timeframe allowed by the ASLB."
The ASLB noted, "The two exemptions ... which allow Entergy to use the decommissioning trust fund for spent fuel management without providing a 30-day notification ... have no practical effect ... unless the LAR is approved," which has been accepted for review, but not yet approved. "Nowhere does the LAR discuss in practical, real-world terms how Entergy will follow the regulations, particularly in light of its granted exemptions."
According to Entergy's post-decommissioning activities report, the company intends to spend $817 million on "license termination" activities, $368 million on spent fuel management, and $57 million for site restoration,12 for a total cost of $1.2 billion. According to Entergy, the trust fund will have accumulated enough interest to pay for the decommissioning in the mid-2060s. If any money is left over at the end of decommissioning, 55 percent of it is to be returned to benefit the ratepayers of Vermont who paid into the fund.
The ASLB notes that because spent fuel management is not a decommissioning activity, not all of Entergy's planned expenditures are allowable under federal regulations. In its filings, the state contended if Entergy is allowed to use decommissioning funds for expenses other than decommissioning, there is a serious risk that the company will run out of money before it finishes decontaminating the site.
"Vermont's claim that Entergy's LAR contains incomplete and incorrect statements concerning its use of the trust fund is within the scope of this license amendment proceeding as defined in the notice of opportunity to request a hearing," noted the ASLB. "Because applicants must provide information that is complete and accurate in all material respects, Vermont's argument that Entergy's statements are erroneous is within the scope of the proceeding."
The ASLB also agreed with the state that Entergy "has not demonstrated how it will account for unforeseen expenses," such as groundwater contamination by radionuclides and extended storage of spent fuel in Vernon.
"In the capacity, the Commission can accept, overturn or partially allow ASLB rulings," noted NRC Spokesman Neil Sheehan in September.
In the letter to Welch, Burns justified approval of SAFSTOR because "Scientific studies concluded that 50 years was the optimal time for radioactive decay and would result in radiation dose rates being reduced to 1 to 2 percent and radioactive waste volumes being reduced to about 10 percent compared to the levels that exist at the time of permanent plant shutdown. Sixty years was determined to be appropriate based on 50 years to allow radioactive decay and 10 years to complete the decommissioning."
As far as the emergency preparedness zone is concerned, noted Burns, because the Vermont Yankee is no longer in operation, the consequences of a nuclear accident at the plant are limited.
In the effort to get more public input in the decommissioning process, the Vermont congressional delegation of Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders announced Tuesday, Dec. 8, that they have called upon the NRC to improve public input on proposed changes to nuclear plant decommissioning regulations.
Sanders, who serves on the Senate energy and environment committees, led the effort which urged the NRC to hold public meetings in each state where a nuclear power plant is currently being decommissioned and to extend the deadline for public comments.
"While we commend the NRC for proposing these long overdue regulations, we believe the short public comment period and the plan to have a single public meeting will not give local and state stakeholders sufficient opportunities to participate meaningfully in the rulemaking process," the Vermont congressional delegation wrote in a letter sent to Burns on Monday.
The letter was also signed by Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.).