MONTPELIER -- The state opposes a request by the operators of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant to discontinue off-site emergency planning after the facility shuts down, a state official said Wednesday.
Testifying at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on nuclear plant decommissioning in Washington, D.C, Chris Recchia, commissioner of the state Department of Public Service, said the emergency planning efforts should continue until of all of the plant's spent fuel rods are removed from pools and placed in dry cask storage.
Entergy, the plant's Louisiana-based owner, asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission last month to allow it to halt emergency planning 16 months after the plant closes in December. The state reached an agreement with Entergy to close Vermont Yankee at the end of this year.
"Within 15.4 months after shutdown, no credible accident at VY will result in radiological releases requiring offsite protective actions," Entergy states in its request to the Nuclear Energy Commission for an exemption from federal regulations related to the emergency planning zone around nuclear power plants, the Brattleboro Reformer reported in April. "The potential for a release of a large radiological source term to the environment from the high pressures and the temperatures associated with reactor operation will no longer exist.
Speaking at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, Recchia said Entergy should continue emergency protection requirements until no fuel is left in the cooling pools.
"We have 3,800 fuels rods in a pool designed for 350. We don't think that it's safe to eliminate the emergency protection zones until the fuel is, at the minimum, in dry cask," Recchia told the committee, which includes Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
The hearing brought together witnesses from state and municipal government, the NRC, the nuclear power industry and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It came on the heels of legislation introduced by Sanders, Boxer and Edward Markey, D-Mass., calling on the NRC to give states a greater role in the decommissioning process.
The legislation would require plant operators to consult with states within 50 miles of a plant before submitting a decommissioning plan to the NRC, according to a news release from Sanders' office. The bill would require the NRC to solicit input from the public, and it would make the NRC approve or reject every proposed decommissioning plan -- something the regulatory agency does not do now.
Recchia, while praising Vermont's agreement with Entergy, said states would benefit "from a seat at the table" in the decommissioning process and asked that the NRC be required to sign off on decommissioning plans submitted by plant operators. Currently, the NRC is not required to approve decommissioning plans.
Recchia also criticized the NRC's process of accepting public and stakeholder comments without being required to respond to any concerns that are raised, and that Vermont's ability to negotiate with Entergy over decommissioning was limited by NRC rules.
"I know of no other regulatory structure in which some of that dialogue is not analyzed and responded to," Recchia said.
"We were hamstrung in the ability to negotiate (with Entergy) there were things we weren't able to agree on, things NRC has allowed," he said. "Vermont was not well-served by the NRC's past decisions and current approach. We negotiated with our hands tied behind our backs."
Recchia also urged the Department of Energy more quickly reimburse plant operators for the money they spend securing spent fuel. Without a storage site for spent fuel, the federal government has assumed ultimate responsibility for nuclear waste.
The hearing also addressed the risk of catastrophic fire in spent fuel pools that would release radiation and whether it makes sense to expedite the transfer of fuel rods to dry cask. Spent fuel rods can be held in sometimes crowded cooling pools for 50 years or more, Boxer said.
Boxer told Michael Weber, the NRC's deputy executive director for operations, materials, waste, research, state, tribal and compliance programs, she was concerned by the amount of spent fuel held at the San Onofre nuclear generating station in California, which is also in the process of decommissioning. Boxer said 8 million people live within 50 miles of the Southern California plant. She said there were 2,600 rods being stored in space designed for 1,600.
"Your own chairman wrote that if there's an accident (at a spent fuel pool) it could be worse than Chernobyl," she said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, said the NRC is doing a good job regulating the industry and the rush to close nuclear power plants could damage the nation's energy supply and economy.
"The NRC has a proven record of success in regulating these matters," said Sessions, a member of the committee. "We endanger a weak economy by driving up the cost of energy by closing up plants that could be productive for a decade or more."