Editor’s note: This article is by Robert Audette of the Brattleboro Reformer, in which it was first published Aug. 5, 2015.
BRATTLEBORO — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued a conclusion that there are no significant impacts of reducing Entergy’s emergency response commitments to communities surrounding Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
In December 2014, the reactor was shut down after 42 years of operation. Since then, Entergy has been winding down activities at the site. Because there is no longer an active reactor on site, the NRC allows Entergy to apply for exemptions to relieve it of its “formal” off-site emergency response responsibilities.
NRC regulations concerning emergency planning do not recognize the reduced risks after a reactor is permanently shut down and defueled. “As such, a permanently shutdown and defueled reactor, such as VY, must continue to maintain the same EP requirements as an operating power reactor under the existing regulatory requirements,” notes the document.
The NRC is revising its emergency preparedness regulations concerning retired reactors, but until those regulations are finalized, an owner of a reactor that has ceased operations must apply for exemptions to the rules.
The NRC received comments from a number of interested agencies, including the state of Vermont, about Entergy’s request, and declined to issue a draft environmental assessment. Instead, it issued, on Aug. 6, a finding of no significant impacts. The NRC noted it reviewed all submissions, even though some of those “were outside the scope” of the draft environmental analysis and finding of no significant impact.
Vermont argued that the NRC did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act by publishing the draft environmental assessment after the Commission had approved the staff’s recommendation to grant the exemption request and that the draft EA and FONSI are deficient and inadequate because they do not take a hard look at all the potential environmental impacts of the proposed action, which Vermont asserts could be significant and, thus, require evaluation through an environmental impact statement.
“As an initial matter, the comments are outside the scope of the comment opportunity because they do not have to do with the environmental impacts of granting Entergy’s exemption request, but are instead procedural and substantive challenges under NEPA, to an NRC granting of the exemption request that has not yet occurred. Additionally, both arguments are without merit … because … the NRC conducted the EA for the exemption request before making any final decision on the exemption request.”
The NRC staff also disagreed with each of Vermont’s specific arguments as to why it believes that the EA is inadequate.
“Vermont asserts that the granting of the exemption request would have ‘direct and significant implications for public health and safety,’ but the EA explicitly found that granting the exemption request would not have a significant effect on the quality of the human environment.”
The state asserted that the situation at Yankee is unique because there is an elementary school directly across the street from the plant.
“This fact is immaterial because the NRC staff found that Entergy had provided reasonable assurance that [an accident] would not result in radiation exposure greater than or equal to 1 rem at the [Yankee] boundary and … [w]ould be addressed in a timely manner.”
The NRC also noted that exemption requests similar to Entergy’s have been granted for eight previous facilities and that Entergy has a continuing obligation to make radiological orientation training available to local emergency services and law enforcement.
The NRC also received a number of public comments that “raised substantively similar issues as the Vermont comments and, thus, the NRC staff disagrees with them for the same reasons that it disagrees with the Vermont comments …”
Some requirements, such as the necessity of maintaining on-site capabilities to communicate and coordinate with off-site response authorities will be retained, wrote the NRC.
“In addition, off-site EP provisions would still exist through state and local government use of a comprehensive emergency management plan in accordance with FEMA regulations.”
The final removal of fuel from the reactor vessel to the spent nuclear fuel pool was completed on January 12. Nuclear waste produced during the reactor’s operation is also stored outside of the reactor building in dry casks. The emergency exemptions wouldn’t go into place until April 2016, when the spent fuel has cooled off to the point “no credible accident at VY will result in radiological releases requiring off-site protective actions.”
In its request, Entergy identified four possible radiological accidents at Yankee in its permanently shutdown and defueled condition: a fuel handling accident; a radioactive waste handling accident; a loss of spent fuel pool normal cooling; and an adiabatic heat up of the hottest fuel assembly.
“The NRC staff evaluated these possible radiological accidents [and] verified that Entergy’s analyses and calculations provided reasonable assurance [that] an off-site radiological release will not exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Protective Action Guides.”
In the event the spent nuclear fuel loses its cooling capability, wrote the NRC, “there is sufficient time to initiate appropriate mitigating actions on site and, if a release is projected to occur, there is sufficient time for off-site agencies to take protective actions.”
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.