Energy

NRC approves step toward eliminating emergency protection requirements at Vermont Yankee

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.

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  • steve merrill

    So–They still have to “cool” the spent fuel, which is a giant pool-on-stilts above the old reaction chamber, for another year and still there’s NO place to permanently “dispose” of this crap? Seems like another “former industry” has left the state with a giant pile of toxic waste for Vermonter’s to live with, while their company pocketed the cash along with “stockholders” too. Ah–The joys of “capitalism”, their “externality” is now our haz-mat pile, thanks Entergy!! SM, N. Troy

  • John Baker

    The state eagerly sold Vermont Yankee and the spent nuclear fuel in part to pass the responsibility (trust fund) to someone else.

    Since Entergy said it would start decommissioning as soon as there was enough money in the trust fund, why don’t all the complainers start writing checks?

    Of course the fuel would remain on site for the same amount of time no matter who owned the plant but don’t let the facts get in the way.

    • John Greenberg

      John Baker:

      “The state” didn’t sell VY “eagerly” or otherwise; the State of Vermont never owned it or any part of it.

      The plant was sold to Entergy by its previous owners, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corporation, whose shareholders included utilities from in-state as well as out-of-state. The Vermont Public Service Board issued a CPG allowing the sale to go forward, and the Vermont Supreme Court upheld its decision.

      A variety of federal regulatory bodies also approved the sale. Given, for example, that the NRC upheld the sale as well, would you say that the US sold the plant eagerly?

      Since you acknowledge that “the fuel would remain on site for the same amount of time no matter who owned the plant,” are you suggesting that either the State of Vermont or the people of Vermont would be better off if VYNPC had retained the liability for decommissioning the plant? If so, I’d certainly be curious to know why. If not, then what’s your point?

      • John Baker

        Would it have be clearer if I had said “eagerly approved”?

        As for your second point, I was responding to Mr. Merrill’s mistaken assumption that, “Seems like another “former industry” has left the state with a giant pile of toxic waste for Vermonter’s to live with, while their company pocketed the cash along with “stockholders” too.”

        • John Greenberg

          John Baker:

          “Would it have be clearer if I had said “eagerly approved”?” Yes, since these are 2 very different propositions, it would have changed your meaning entirely. I’m not sure how “eager” the Board was (How do you know when the Board is eager??), but I don’t think it matters much either.

          As to the second point, Mr. Merrill is correct to note that Entergy pocketed the money from VY sales without putting any of it into the decommissioning fund, thus creating the problem of inadequate funding. That, of course, was exactly what Entergy said it would do as part of the sale deal, as you are pointing out.

          Prior to the sale, VYNPC was allocating a portion of VY’s income to the decommissioning fund every year and presumably would have continued to do so, assuming no change in the regulatory framework. This money came directly from ratepayers, both inside and outside of Vermont and was regulated by FERC.

          The sale eliminated both the contributions from ratepayers and any attempt to add to the decommissioning fund. I gather that’s your point.

          There is a legitimate question here, which should certainly be answered if more nuclear plants are to be built in the US: namely, whether the FERC’s “merchant generator” model should ever have been applied to nuclear plants. What the history here tells us is that the transition from a closely regulated plant to a laissez-faire market model resulted in a lack of incentive to properly provide for decommissioning and neither FERC nor NRC showed any inclination to do much about it.

          That said, I don’t blame Entergy in this instance for doing precisely what it said all along it would do. I do blame regulators for failing to recognize (despite ongoing warnings) or remedy the problem.

          • John Baker

            Since I am well aware that the state didn’t own VY, It didn’t change the meaning one bit but I’ll try to remember my audience in future posts.

            Sorry but you and the state don’t get to decide what “inadequate funding” is in regards to decommissioning trust funds.

          • John Greenberg

            John Baker:

            “Sorry but you and the state don’t get to decide what “inadequate funding” is in regards to decommissioning trust funds.”

            The fund holds roughly half as much as ENTERGY has said in sworn testimony to the Public Service Board that it needs to complete the task. That’s Entergy –not me, not the State of Vermont — telling you the fund is “inadequate,” please define the word “inadequate” for us.

            Entergy has made it quite clear that it chose SAFSTOR because it had no choice: it cannot complete decommissioning until the fund is adequate and that won’t be for another 20 years or more.

            In order to believe that the fund will EVER grow enough to become adequate, you have to believe that the cost of decommissioning will NOT grow as fast as the fund does. It’s not unreasonable to question that proposition. The State of Vermont and I are not alone in doing so.

          • John Baker

            The code of federal regulations determines fund adequacy.

            The fact the you want the site to start decommissioning now instead of another approved method (SAFSTOR) doesn’t matter.

            I’ll gladly eat my words in 60 years.

  • Kim Fried

    Why should Vermont’s regulators be complaining? First the administration did every thing they could do to shut this facility down and now they are finding out what the consequences are. This is Vermont’s normal political approach. The regulators for the NRC justify decisions using the “exceptions” approach, in Vermont’s ANR, DPS and PSB call it “mitigation” when ever they decide to approve any quetionable energy project such as industrial wind and solar, to justify their political decisions.
    You either follow the law or don’t. Vermont has no reason to scream foul when they use the same tactics on an on going basis. When it comes to the health of our environment and safety of citizens, both “exception” and “mitigation” are despicable approaches to laws and regulation, both in Washington and our good old pure Vermont.

    • John Greenberg

      Kim Fried:

      ‘You either follow the law or don’t. Vermont has no reason to scream foul …..”

      It’s not quite as simple as you suggest. The question often is “what IS the law as applied to this instance?” VT DPS is simply arguing that, in this instance, the NRC staff recommendation does NOT “follow the law.” They may be right or wrong (frankly, I’m not following this very carefully and haven’t read the appropriate documents), but their intervention is perfectly legitimate and, in your phrase follows the law.

  • David Andrews

    What exactly are Vermont’s goals regarding Vermont Yankee? For years the State tried to shut the plant down. Market forces prevailed, and it closed.

    One would think, based on the copious comments from the State agencies involved, they would want to work to remove any and all roadblocks to the decommissioning process. Not so. It makes no sense to go through another multi-year approval process to place a second dry fuel pad (a thick slab of concrete designed to hold lots of weight) immediately adjacent to the first pad.

    Why does the health department want to require split soil samples analyzed by two independent labs of the soil where the second pad will be placed? They didn’t require it for the first? It sounds like the VT department heads, who have had their budgets supported by VY $$ for years, see the VY bucks drying up, and are trying to angle to keep the cash flowing in.

    It looks like Recchia is trying to get the other NE states to join him in a fight against the NRC, no doubt funded by Entergy and led by our lawsuit losing AG. Here we go again.
    If the State really wants the decommissioning to proceed full steam ahead, then stop dipping into the funds, get out of the way, and let the work proceed.