Senators Review Nuclear Decommissioning

May 15, 2014

Vermont Yankee
Credit Entergy/NRC

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing Wednesday to hear about concerns and challenges surrounding the decommissioning of nuclear reactors. The hearing has implications across the Northeast.

The hearing was held the day after three pieces of legislation were introduced by committee members Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders to address decommissioning issues and spent fuel storage.

Boxer, the committee chair, says there are concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not doing everything it can to keep communities safe during decommissioning nor allowing municipalities to have an acceptable voice in the process.

Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act, which would require that states and local communities have a role in the shutdown process.  “We in Vermont are very concerned that the decommissioning process could take up to 60 years. The NRC now does not allow the states that host a nuclear power plant with any kind of meaningful role in crafting the decommissioning plan.”

Republican Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions retorted that the NRC has a proven process for decommissioning.  “Safe nuclear reactor decommissioning takes time and it is a proven process. Senator Sanders, nuclear power regulation has been preempted by the federal government and I think there are real problems arising if you give legal power to states to alter reactor decommissioning or other  changes in reactors after it’s been established.”

But Vermont Commissioner of Public Service Chris Recchia says while the state has worked with Vermont Yankee owners, it has been hamstrung in its ability to participate in decommissioning planning.  “Vermont was not well served by NRC’s past decisions and current approach to decommissioning. We essentially negotiated with one hand tied behind our back. One critical point, I want to emphasize this, the PSDAR that is the foundation of any decommissioning plan is developed by the owner of the plant. It is sent to the NRC. But the NRC does not have to act on that and in most cases does not. And I really know of no other regulatory structure in which something of that significance is not analyzed and responded to.”

Senator Markey introduced the Dry Cask Storage Act, which would require spent fuel be placed in dry cask storage within seven years. He quizzed Public Service Commissioner Recchia on Vermont’s experience.  “Entergy has said it would be able to remove all the spent fuel from the pools at Vermont Yankee within seven years. Do you foresee any obstacles to meeting that deadline?”  Recchia replied “The only obstacle that I see is a financial one.”   Senator Markey turned to Natural Resources Defense Council Senior Attorney Geoffrey Fettus with a followup question. “Mr. Fettus do you agree that storing fuel in dry cask is a safer option and can be done within seven years?” The NRDC representative responded  “It’s a substantially safer option, Senator, and yes.”

Considerable discussion and questioning occurred regarding the volume of spent fuel rod storage and exemptions allowed by the NRC. For example, the Vermont Yankee spent fuel chamber was designed to hold 350, but currently stores more than 3,800. Boxer was particularly critical of the potential dangers.