Welch probes regulators on transparency, expediency with Vermont Yankee process

In a Wednesday morning hearing of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission U.S. Rep. Peter Welch took the opportunity to ask the the four overseers of the commission about Vermont Yankee.

His primary concerns: Can the commission allow more state and local input on nuclear-plant decommissioning? And can the federal government speed up the decades-long cleanup at Yankee?

The NRC’s answers were, respectively, “Maybe,” and, “No.”

In the most telling exchange between commission Chairman Stephen Burns and Vermont’s sole representative in the House, Burns said the NRC won’t attempt to influence Yankee’s decommissioning timeline under the extended dormancy program called SAFSTOR.

“You understand that there’s a huge price that the community pays for that?” Welch asked. “You basically have this very important facility and location – in this case, along the banks of the Connecticut River – that essentially cannot be used or developed.”

Burns replied: “Essentially, the options are primarily SAFSTOR, or going to a more-immediate decommissioning. But again, the NRC, because it has found either of those options to be a safe option, we don’t compel one versus the other.”

The conversation happened during a joint hearing Wednesday in Washington of two subcommittees of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – Environment and the Economy, and Energy and Power. Welch sits on the latter subcommittee. The hearing’s topic was “Oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Eight months after Vermont Yankee ceased producing power in Vernon, many have had questions about the NRC’s oversight of the decommissioning process. On Wednesday, Welch echoed a common concern raised about public participation in that process – “How extensive will that be, or how limited will it be?”

Welch mentioned a recent NRC teleconference “that lasted several hours. About two and a half hours were devoted to hearing from the (Nuclear Energy Institute), which was essentially (Vermont Yankee owner) Entergy, and only 20 minutes from the Vermont Public Service Department.”

“How extensive(ly) are you going to allow legitimate public representatives to have a seat at the table?” Welch asked. “Right now, it appears to be almost limited to the public comment period, and I’m sure you read the comments and take those comments into account.”

“But when there’s an actual discussion, having our attorney general or a Public Service Department that’s appointed by our governor – and certainly community representatives from the southern Vermont area – is really consequential to considering … the decisions you’re going to make.”

In particular, Welch cited “the decisions your commission must make about the use of the decommissioning fund.” That’s a controversial topic, given that the size of that trust fund dictates how soon Vermont Yankee is cleaned up.

The state is challenging several of Entergy’s proposed uses of the fund, including property tax payments and spent-fuel management. Welch called for “strict monitoring and limited uses of the decommissioning fund itself” on Wednesday.

“There’s an inherent conflict, to some extent, between the merchant generator – in this case, Entergy – which wants to put as many costs on (the decommissioning fund) as possible, and the community, which wants strict limitations related to managing the radioactive contamination situation,” Welch said.

Burns’ initial response defended the NRC’s public-input policies: “What the NRC tries to do is ensure through its part of its oversight program that there are opportunities for public engagement, public information and the like.”

Later, though, Welch appealed to his fellow representatives by noting that the implications of the NRC’s policies reached well beyond Vermont.

“This is going to face all of us who have any kind of nuclear facility,” Welch said. “And having a legitimate way for the community to be heard through their representatives, I think, is absolutely essential to the decommissioning process.”

In response, NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran said the agency is drafting new regulations regarding decommissioning. “We now have initiated a rule-making to take a fresh look at a number of these issues, including what is the appropriate role for state and local governments and the public,” Baran said. “Is the current level of public participation adequate?”

Welch spokeswoman Kirsten Hartman issued a statement after the hearing, focusing on that pledge. “Following up on this testimony, the congressman will be sending a letter to the NRC to ensure that they follow through on this commitment,” Hartman wrote in an email.

But on the topic of Yankee’s decommissioning schedule, Welch received no such assurances.

The NRC mandates that, under the SAFSTOR program, decommissioning must be completed within 60 years of a plant’s shutdown. Money is a big factor in how that will play out in Vernon: Yankee’s decommissioning fund now holds about $636 million, and Entergy says it will need $1.2 billion to complete decommissioning.

Welch said putting Yankee in SAFSTOR “means that site restoration is going to be postponed literally for generations, and there’s a real big question as to whether or not we should try to proceed with decommissioning sooner rather than later – in five years rather than 60 years.”

The extended schedule is “something that’s of enormous concern to our governor, down to the selectboards.”

But Burns said the ancillary effects of SAFSTOR are essentially not within NRC’s purview.

“Our regulations allow for different options for decommissioning, and that includes SAFSTOR,” Burns said. “From the NRC’s standpoint and the safety standpoint, we believe that that is a safe and legitimate way to go. Whether other means – for example, a more-immediate decommissioning – occur is probably more a matter of the dialogue between the state and the company itself, because we have found that SAFSTOR is legitimate.”

Asked for comment on the NRC-Welch exchange, Entergy spokesman Martin Cohn said, “Vermont Yankee will follow the NRC’s approved SAFSTOR process, where the facility is maintained and monitored in a safe condition, and the decontamination and dismantling of the station occurs later.”

Cohn also hinted at the federal government’s obligation to find a central repository for spent nuclear fuel – an obligation the government is nowhere near meeting at this point.

“With regard to the use of the decommissioning trust fund, Entergy continues to be compliant with all regulatory requirements,” Cohn wrote in an email.

“We appreciate Congressman Welch’s interest in safely completing the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee and look forward to Congressman Welch working with his colleagues to move forward on the issue of spent-fuel management, a vital element of the decommissioning process.”

Mike Faher

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