Role of decommissioning citizen panels questioned

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Anti-nuclear activists told about 300 people logged in to a national webinar on citizen advisory panels at decommissioning nuclear power plants that it was better to have a state or independently-funded group, rather than rely on funding from the owner of the defunct nuclear reactor.

The webinar last week, organized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was designed to set the stage for a series of meetings around the country focusing on plants that are either undergoing decommissioning or will in the near future, and the role citizen advisory panels can play. The NRC is holding a hearing on both issues Sept. 10 in Brattleboro, at Brattleboro Area Middle School, starting at 6 p.m.

In Vermont's case, Vermont Yankee is undergoing active decommissioning and it is expected to be completed in six to eight years.

While NRC officials gave basic tutorials on the federal decommissioning process and oversight, during the question-and-answer period, activists, particularly from Southern California, said it was much better that citizen groups have a strong degree of independence from the owner or utility.

In Vermont's case, the Vermont Legislature created the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, but funding for the panel comes from the Department of Public Service, which gets a large share of its budget from the state's utilities. In the case of Maine Yankee, its utility owner funded the citizen panel. Vermont originally set up the citizen panel, which includes a large number of state officials, when Vermont Yankee was owned by Entergy Nuclear and was going to be mothballed for up to 60 years before it was demolished and cleaned up. But since then, Entergy has sold Vermont Yankee to NorthStar Holding Company, and NorthStar, an industrial demolition company, immediately started the demolition and clean-up process.

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Christopher Campany, chairman of the Vermont Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel, and the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission in Brattleboro, said the group is evaluating its focus, given the sale and the fact that decommissioning is now actively underway.

The activists also asked the NRC officials why they were not active participants in the panels, or whether they could provide available experts to help educate the public about nuclear issues. "The issues are complex and technical," one person pointed out.

But NRC official Bruce Watson said the NRC was not a member or a participant in the panels. He noted that they are volunteer groups. Several people questioned whether the panels had any authority or power, since the word "advisory" is included in their names.

Several attendees said they were concerned about the safety of the spent nuclear fuel, that either is being stored or will be stored on nuclear reactor sites around the country, since the U.S. Department of Energy has not taken possession of the high-level nuclear waste, as required by law. But Watson said the webinar was not for debating various aspects of decommissioning, but the citizens advisory boards. Several of the California activists said they were concerned that the spent fuel pools at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon were being demolished, which would destroy the one place where spent nuclear fuel could be safely transferred to a different cask, if the original cask starts leaking radiation.

Public comment will be accepted until mid-November, and then the NRC will prepare a report for Congress, Watson said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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