State can't have hearing on proposed VY emergency changes

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VERNON >> There has been no final ruling on whether the owner of the shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant can drastically curtail emergency planning in the region.

But this much is clear: The state of Vermont can't have a hearing on the matter.

The federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has ruled against the state's request for a hearing on Entergy's license-amendment request, essentially deciding that the state's arguments weren't admissable in the context of the board's review.

"Neither in its pleadings nor at oral argument was Vermont able to articulate a challenge to any aspect of the (license amendment request) ... that set forth sufficient factual support or raised a genuine dispute with the application," board members wrote in a decision issued Monday.

Vermont Yankee ceased producing power in December, and Entergy is preparing the Vernon plant for a prolonged period of dormancy — labeled SAFSTOR — that will precede actual decommissioning work.

The site will host spent nuclear fuel for the foreseeable future, and Entergy administrators have said they expect to have all of that fuel transferred to more-stable dry cask storage by the end of 2020. But even before that transfer is complete, the company sees no reason to continue maintaining — and funding — an emergency planning zone in area towns.

In June 2014, Entergy asked the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to amend its license to allow a marked decrease in emergency planning starting in spring 2016. The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board summarized the argument this way:

"In the analysis supporting its request, Entergy concluded that the risk of off-site radiological releases will be significantly lower once the spent fuel has cooled for 15.4 months after final defueling, making it unnecessary to maintain the same level of emergency planning as when the plant was operating. Among other changes, Entergy seeks to increase the time for providing emergency alerts to the state from 15 minutes to an hour and requests reduction of the emergency planning zone to the site boundary."

Those proposed changes don't sit well with some. That includes the state, which argues that Entergy's proposed license amendment "fails to account for all credible emergency scenarios; undermines the effectiveness of the site emergency plan and off-site emergency planning; and poses an increased risk to the health and safety of Vermont citizens in violation of NRC regulatory requirements."

So far, the NRC isn't buying that. In March, the presidentially appointed commission that oversees the NRC approved Entergy's request for exemptions, paving the way for the emergency-planning changes pending a technical review by NRC staff. The state of Vermont has asked for reconsideration of the commission's decision, so the matter is not yet resolved.

But the commission's prior ruling was on the minds of the three judges who make up the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board — which is an independent adjudicatory body of the NRC — as they considered the state's request for a hearing on Entergy's proposed license changes.

"The commission itself has already reviewed and approved the requested exemptions and, by reason of Vermont's pending petition for reconsideration, has the opportunity to review them again," the board's decision says. "Does the commission wish its licensing boards to conduct evidentiary hearings on the wisdom of the commission's decisions? We think not."

The judges added that, "absent contrary direction from the commission, the board assumes the correctness of the commission's decision."

That left the board to determine only whether the state had admissable arguments about whether Entergy's license-amendment request is consistent with NRC regulations — in other words, whether the state could argue that the company's amendment request was somehow deficient or non-compliant.

Based on those narrow criteria, the board decided against the state.

"Although Vermont submitted a timely hearing petition and has standing, neither of Vermont's two proffered contentions satisfies the admissibility criteria," the board's decision says. "Accordingly, the board denies Vermont's hearing request."

Contact Mike Faher at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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