States claim NRC ignoring nuke cleanup concerns

TJ Donovan
Attorney General TJ Donovan. Photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger
Vermont and three other states are accusing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of favoritism as the federal agency seeks to revamp rules for decommissioning nuclear plants.

Vermont officials, including the Vermont Attorney General, have joined their counterparts in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York to lobby again for stricter decommissioning regulations and a stronger role for states in nuclear cleanups.

The states’ comments submitted to the NRC are aimed at “protecting Vermont’s interest in the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee,” state Attorney General T.J. Donovan said.

State officials from the region say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems to be ignoring many of their concerns.

“To date, the NRC does not appear to have treated (states’) comments on equal footing with the viewpoints raised by power reactor licensees and industry representatives,” officials wrote. “A rebalancing is in order.”

Neil Sheehan, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, disputed that, noting that the agency has been taking comments from citizens, watchdog groups, governmental entities and the nuclear industry.

“The NRC staff has and will continue to review all of the comments on their own merits, irrespective of where they originated,” Sheehan said.

The lack of clear rules for idled nuclear plants like Vermont Yankee has spurred the NRC to undertake an extensive review. The commission has pledged to create a “more efficient, open and reliable decommissioning process.”

State officials and citizen observers have complained that the complexity of the current process makes it difficult to monitor and participate in Vermont Yankee decommissioning decisions.

And on the other side of the coin, plant owner Entergy has spent much time and money pursuing exemptions and license amendments from the NRC in order to proceed even with preliminary decommissioning work.

But it takes a long time to fashion new decommissioning regulations: The NRC started its rule-making process in 2015, and it’s expected to continue for a few more years.

The current goal is for NRC staffers to submit a final decommissioning rule for commissioners’ review in October 2019, Sheehan said.

Along the way, the NRC has been soliciting public comment. And two very different agendas have emerged: The four states are lobbying for more input and heavier regulations, while the nuclear industry is asking the NRC to simply clarify and streamline the decommissioning process.

After reviewing the NRC’s work on making rules for decommissioning so far, state officials are letting the federal agency know that they’re not happy.

In a June 13 filing with the NRC, state officials wrote that commission staffers seem to be giving their initial comments short shrift.

“Many of the states’ suggestions were not addressed at all, and the ones that were addressed were minimized and would not even be mandated,” state officials wrote.

For example, the states want nuclear plant operators to “conduct a full site assessment and characterization” before submitting decommissioning plans. But the NRC isn’t currently looking to do that.

The states also want the NRC to shorten its maximum 60-year time frame for decommissioning, and they want a nuclear plant owner’s decommissioning plan to be approved by the NRC. Currently, the federal agency only reviews such plans.

But the states complain that neither of those requests appear to be under consideration for the NRC’s new, “binding” regulations for decommissioning.

“With the exception of one increased burden that it is considering … NRC staff’s other proposed rules all seek to decrease regulatory requirements,” the states wrote.

The states also argue that the NRC’s preliminary rulemaking analysis has “significant gaps.” For instance, they say federal officials have not sufficiently considered the states’ interest in critical issues like emergency planning and decommissioning trust fund spending.

And officials want the federal decommissioning process to provide a more “meaningful role” for states and host communities – a cause also championed by Vermont’s congressional delegation.

The Vermont Public Service Department; Health Department; Agency of Natural Resources; and Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security also participated in the filings.

The states’ comments “send a strong signal that the host state of a decommissioning nuclear facility should have a meaningful voice in the NRC proceedings on behalf of the people most affected – the citizens of Vermont and the ratepayers who funded the decommissioning fund,” Public Service Department Commissioner June Tierney said.

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