NRC to update rules on plant shutdowns
With several nuclear power plants across the country preparing to close, including the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is updating its rules on decommissioning. Merrily Cassidy/Cape Cod Times File
By Christine Legere
Posted Nov. 21, 2015 at 2:00 AM
Updated Nov 21, 2015 at 6:45 AM
With five nuclear reactors in the process of decommissioning and another three expected to shut down within the next four years, federal regulators have decided to update the decades-old rules governing the process.
They are looking for input from the public — at least until Jan. 4, according to a notice of the planned rule change posted in Thursday’s Federal Register.
The goal is to cut down on the large number of exemptions and amendments that owners of decommissioning reactors seek, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan.
“We’re looking at codifying the rules so they don’t have to do it through exemptions,” Sheehan said.
Requests have ranged from the elimination of 10-mile emergency planning zones to reductions in required liability insurance and site security and the ability to dip into decommissioning trust funds.
Under current regulations, the trust funds are limited to tasks directly related to dismantling the buildings and decontaminating the site.
Entergy Corp. recently secured an exemption from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to use some of its decommissioning trust fund to manage radioactive spent fuel at its Vermont Yankee plant, which shut down in December. At the time, the fund’s total stood at $664 million.
“Such exemptions are not unprecedented,” wrote Sheehan in an email. “In recent years, such changes have been approved for Kewaunee, San Onofre and Crystal River nuclear power plants.”
Kewaunee also was given an exemption from the federal emergency planning requirements, based on the assertion that reactors that have ceased operation have a significantly lower risk of offsite release of radioactivity.
Vermont Yankee has a similar request pending.
Entergy is also owner-operator of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station and has announced it will close the Plymouth plant sometime before June 2019. Plant opponents and area legislators have pushed to make sure the problem-plagued plant operates safely until shutdown and that public safety measures remain in place during the decommissioning process.
According to the NRC’s announcement in the Register, reactor licensees must maintain $375 million in offsite liability insurance coverage. Owners of most of the shutdown and defueled reactors have asked for exemptions that will allow insurance coverage to be reduced to $100 million. That change also could be addressed in the regulation update.
The last effort to update the regulations began in the late 1990s but was discontinued after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Our resources got shifted then to security,” Sheehan said. “They’re starting from ground zero at this point. We’re looking for public comment on a whole host of things.”
In addition to the written comment period, which continues until Jan. 4, the NRC has planned a public meeting to accept comments from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 9. The meeting will be in Maryland, but Sheehan said there will be information on the agency's website on how the public can attend remotely.
“We are reviewing the NRC's proposal and are considering whether to file comments,” Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi said Friday.
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said his organization has not agreed with some of the exemptions allowed by federal regulators in the past.
“We think it’s premature to essentially exempt plants from evacuation planning, and we would not support codifying that exemption into the rule,” Lyman said.
“We also wouldn’t support changing security requirements,” he said. “Even if the fuel rods are cooled and there is less chance of an accident, terrorists can do things to maximize the potential for fire.”
Diane Turco, executive director of the anti-Pilgrim group Cape Downwinders, accused the federal agency of adjusting the rules for the benefit of reactor owners.
“The NRC proposal for rulemaking for decommissioning is a vehicle for the industry to meet minimal standards and continue to evade serious public health and safety concerns,” Turco said in an email. “The current NRC practice to exempt the industry from responsibility of all offsite emergency planning and deny the documented dangers from the spent fuel pool is both irresponsible and immoral.”
Other issues to be addressed are fitness-for-duty requirements, timeliness of decommissioning and the role of state and local governments and other organizations.
Sheehan said the final rules will not be brought to the commission for approval until 2019, so plants decommissioning between now and then must follow the rules currently in place.