BRATTLEBORO — In January of 2015, Entergy asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an exemption allowing it to dip into its decommissioning trust fund for the handling of spent fuel of the now-closed Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. Six months later the NRC granted that exemption.
However, during a review of the plant's books conducted by the NRC, Entergy actually did not wait for approval and withdrew $282,000 from the trust fund on Feb. 4, 2015.
"The latest quarterly inspection report for Vermont Yankee does contain a violation associated with the company's use of the plant's decommissioning trust fund," noted NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan, in an email to the Reformer. "Specifically, we are issuing Entergy a Severity Level IV violation for tapping the decommissioning fund for operational spent fuel management planning activities prior to receiving an exemption from the NRC allowing it to do so."
The exemptions approved on June 17, 2015, allow Entergy to withdraw funds "for operational spent fuel management planning activities," stated the inspection report.
"Spent fuel management planning is an activity not directly related to decommissioning planning," noted Sheehan. "Decommissioning plants may use up to 3 percent of the fund for decommissioning planning prior to the NRC's review of a plant's Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, or PSDAR."
But, as Sheehan noted, the amount of money involved represents a small fraction of the plant's decommissioning trust fund.
"We acknowledge that there were some issues associated with the clarity of NRC regulatory guidance in this area," wrote Sheehan. "As you know, we have a rule-making process underway that will seek, among other things, to provide greater clarity when it comes to decommissioning regulations."
In response to the violation, Vermont Yankee has initiated a fleet-wide condition report aimed at interim actions to prevent other decommissioning Entergy nuclear power plants from withdrawing funds for spent fuel management planning expenditures pending clarification of NRC guidance in this area.
"ENVY applied guidance from the NRC that ENVY had interpreted to permit licensees to use decommissioning trust funds allocated for decommissioning planning for spent fuel management planning activities," stated Vermont Yankee Spokesman Martin Cohn, in an email to the media. "The amount of spent fuel management planning costs that ENVY reimbursed from the trust fund, approximately $282,000, represented about 1.5 percent of the amount allowed to be used for decommissioning planning — and less than 0.05 percent of the total trust fund balance at the time.
According to the Vermont Department of Public Service, as of March 31, the market value of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station's decommissioning trust fund accounts was $597,951,857. The balance of the Vermont Yankee Site Restoration Trust was $16,087,043.
"ENVY continues to follow applicable regulations and appropriate guidance and industry practices related to the use of the decommissioning trust fund," noted Cohn.
The June 2015 decision cleared Entergy to use up to $225 million to manage its nuclear waste, but only after it spends down $143 million from a line of credit.
However, officials in Vermont and in other states are contesting the decision in federal court, reasoning that spent fuel costs should come out of an operational budget and not the decommissioning fund, because waste is produced while the plants are producing electricity.
"While Entergy should not have been using the decommissioning trust fund without final approval from the NRC, the real problem is that the NRC allowed Entergy to skirt the existing rules in the first place," said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a statement. "Entergy should not be using a fund that Vermonters paid into for cleaning up spent nuclear waste at Vermont Yankee."
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.