Sanders to NRC: Change your rules

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BRATTLEBORO -- Change your rules or we'll do it for you.

That's the message relayed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to Allison Macfarlane, the chairwoman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, during an oversight hearing Thursday morning in Washington, D.C.

At a hearing of the Senate environment committee, which oversees the NRC, Sanders asked all five members of the NRC about the role of states in decommissioning power plants. All agreed that states have a stake in the outcome. None of the commissioners, however, committed to take any steps to give states a greater say in the process.

"We are trying to urge the NRC in the strongest possible way to change those rules," Sanders told the Reformer on Thursday afternoon. "If they don't, we will introduce legislation."

Sanders said it would be his preference that the NRC expedite its cumbersome rule-making process, rather than be forced to make the changes by Congress. However, if the NRC doesn't take matters into its own hands, said Sanders, "We will act unilaterally."

Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, admitted the NRC's rule-making process can be long and drawn out. Like most of the NRC's regulations, he said, those pertaining to decommissioning were developed over the course of many years.

"It takes years to develop regulations for almost anything we do," he said.

In August 2013, Entergy announced it would be ceasing operations at Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, by the end of 2014.

"We are very concerned that the decommissioning process in Vermont could take 60 years or more to complete," Sanders stated in a press release. "The licensee has a long history of safety and disclosure problems, despite NRC oversight, including the collapse of a cooling tower and multiple leaks of radioactive material. I hope you can appreciate why the prospect of letting dangerous plant sit there for many decades makes Vermonters uncomfortable."

Sanders noted that states have a stake in the economic impact of plant shutdowns from the loss of jobs and taxes, from environmental impacts related to how long non-operating plants sit idle before being decommissioned, and from the standpoint of what will happen to the plant site once the decommissioning is finished. And it's not just in Vermont, he said.

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"Vermont Yankee isn't the only nuclear power plant being shut down," he said. "This applies to a number of other states."

Sheehan maintained that the NRC works hard at including states in the oversight of nuclear power plants.

"They can accompany us on inspections, sit in on meetings ... that kind of cooperation is not going to stop. But there is, not at this point, a formalized role for the state in the decommissioning process. It sounds like Sen. Sanders is looking for something more overt."

Under current rules, Entergy has two years to develop a decommissioning plan and submit it to the NRC. The state and members of the public could comment on the plan, but the local input could be ignored.

"The Vermont Yankee licensee could adopt a decommissioning plan that ignores the needs and interests of Vermonters and the state would have no recourse. That is fundamentally unfair and unreasonable," Sanders stated in his press release.

"Gov. Shumlin and I want to make sure the state has a seat at the table in terms of the decommissioning process," he told the Reformer.

Vermont and Entergy are ahead of the curve, said Sheehan, noting a proposed memorandum of agreement between the two that is unique. In that agreement, Entergy has agreed to set aside $2 million for the each of the next five years for the purposes of economic development in Windham County and release $5.2 million it has held in escrow. It has also agreed to seed a fund for site restoration with a $25 million deposit and a $20 million parental agreement. Entergy indicated it would proceed with decommissioning as soon as the trust fund has reached sufficient levels. It has estimated it will cost about $825 million to clean up the site. Currently the fund has about $612 million. Entergy has said it will complete its decommissioning report before the end of the year, rather than take the two years authorized by the NRC.

However, the Vermont Public Service Board has to approve the memorandum before March 31, or it is null and void. Today is the second day of technical hearings to discuss the proposal between Entergy and the state.

The Public Service Board had been reviewing Entergy's application for a certificate of public good for operation of the power plant from 2012 to 2032. However, the PSB's review was put on hold pending the resolution of a lawsuit filed against the state by Entergy. That suit was resolved in favor of Entergy by a district court judge in January 2012 and later affirmed by an appeals court in August 2013.

Now the PSB is considering whether to issue a CPG for operation through Dec. 31.

Bob Audette can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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