The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Thursday denied Vermont’s appeals of federal rulings that had allowed the shut-down plant’s emergency operations to shrink dramatically as of mid-April.
But regardless of federal action, state officials may have found their own way to continue enhanced emergency operations in the towns around the Vernon plant, having announced last month their intention to bill plant owner Entergy for such activities.
Thursday’s rulings again show that federal regulators won’t force Entergy to reinstate more rigorous emergency standards at Vermont Yankee. NRC commissioners also reiterated that federal scrutiny of the plant continues.
“Although the plant has shut down, the agency’s safety and security oversight has not ceased, and we continue to ensure that Entergy remains in compliance with our regulations,” commissioners wrote.
Vermont Yankee ceased producing power in December 2014, and Entergy has sought NRC approval of various regulatory changes as the plant enters an extended period of dormancy called SAFSTOR.
One key change was the reduction of emergency operations both inside and outside the plant. That required regulatory exemptions and a license amendment, both of which the NRC granted in December.
As a result, the 10-mile emergency planning zone around the plant ceased to exist in April. Also, Vermont Yankee’s internal emergency operations shrank, and the plant subsequently made another round of layoffs.
The NRC agreed with Entergy’s analysis that reduced emergency operations were warranted because “the risk of an offsite radiological release is significantly lower and the types of possible accidents significantly fewer” at a dormant nuclear plant.
But state officials repeatedly have objected to the emergency changes, mostly because radioactive spent nuclear fuel will remain in a cooling pool at Vermont Yankee for the next several years.
Vermont made two attempts to reverse the changes via filings with the NRC.
First, officials appealed the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board’s refusal to allow the state a hearing on Entergy’s license amendment request. Second, the state asked the NRC to reconsider its own approval of Entergy’s regulatory exemptions related to emergency planning.
The NRC denied both those appeals Thursday.
In asking for a hearing on Entergy’s license amendment, Vermont had raised a procedural issue and also had argued that the company’s reduced emergency plan “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.”
The NRC, however, found that the state’s arguments were inadmissible. On the procedural issue, the state has “impermissibly challenged the way the agency conducts its business,” NRC commissioners wrote.
And in addressing the state’s concerns about increased health and safety risks, commissioners found Vermont didn’t provide enough supporting evidence for its arguments. “Vermont’s claims amount to generalized grievances and are insufficient to establish a genuine, material dispute,” the NRC’s decision says.
The NRC also declined to reconsider its decision to grant Entergy’s regulatory exemptions.
Vermont Yankee spokesman Marty Cohn said the company was pleased with the decision.
“Entergy Vermont Yankee remains committed to the safe and efficient decommissioning of Vermont Yankee and adhering to all applicable NRC regulations,” Cohn said.
State Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia said he was disappointed in the ruling. But he said the state, in the fiscal year that begins July 1, will begin billing Entergy in an attempt to maintain enhanced emergency operations in areas around Vermont Yankee.
“We still think the NRC should revisit this issue,” Recchia said Thursday. “But for Vermont, we have a different way forward.”