BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont's two senators are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to stop the "unwise policy" of reducing and even eliminating the emergency preparedness zones around decommissioning nuclear power plants.
"(The NRC) has granted each and every one of the 10 requests for exemptions from emergency response requirements that it has received from reactors that have permanently shut down, generally within two years of the reactors' closure and without regard to how much spent fuel is still stored in spent fuel pools," stated the letter, which was signed by Sen. Patrick Leahy and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both from Vermont, Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
The licensees of reactors that are or will soon begin the decommissioning process, including Vermont Yankee in Vernon, have already submitted a wide range of exemption requests from emergency response, security and other regulations to the NRC.
In Yankee's case, Entergy has claimed within less than 16 months of the plant's closure at the end of this year, offsite emergency planning will no longer be needed. Documents submitted by Entergy to the NRC demonstrate that within 15.4 months, the spent fuel in the plant's spent fuel pool will have decayed to the extent that the heat produced by the waste will not prove to be an offsite risk because of the emergency systems in place to respond to a leak of coolant.
The senators are concerned that recent lessons learned from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan indicate offsite emergency planning should be maintained while nuclear waste is stored in a spent fuel pool.
"The National Academy of Sciences and the NRC have both found that draining of a spent nuclear fuel pool can lead to fires, large radioactive releases and widespread contamination," noted the letter from the senators. "NRC's analysis has even concluded that the health and economic impacts of a spent fuel fire could equal those caused by an accident at an operating reactor."
This is especially concerning to the senators because the NRC is currently in the process of finalizing its finding that spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life of a nuclear power plant.
"(The NRC) based this determination in part on the assertion that emergency preparedness and security regulations remain in place during decommissioning," they wrote. "What the NRC failed to state ... was the licensees of decommissioning reactors are almost always exempted from the regulatory requirements NRC based its findings on within two years of reactors' shutdown. This is unacceptable. We urge you to announce your intent to reverse this unwise policy."
Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said it will review the correspondence from the senators and provide a response in a timely manner.
"In the case of Vermont Yankee, Entergy has submitted an exemption request to the NRC seeking to change the 10-mile-radius Emergency Planning Zone for the plant following its permanent shutdown later this year," he said. "Our regulations permit such a change once calculations show the amount of radioactivity that could be released off-site during a significant accident has decreased to levels that would in all likelihood not require protective actions. We will carefully review the exemption request to determine if it meets the requirements for such relief."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.