Vermont Congressman Demands More Public Engagement Be Allowed In Decommissioning Process

Oct 15, 2015

Vermont Congressman Peter Welch has written a letter to the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission demanding more public participation in the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant decommissioning process.

The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant stopped operating at the end of 2014.  The decommissioning of the plant — a process expected to take decades — remains a heated issue as methodology and funding continue to be reviewed and debated.

During a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittees on Energy and Power, and Environment and the Economy in September, Vermont Congressman Peter Welch asked NRC Chairman Stephen Burns a number of questions regarding how extensively legitimate public representatives — including the public service department and attorney general — would be allowed to have a seat at the table; how the decommissioning fund will be used and which decommissioning procedure should be used.

Vermont’s sole representative has now followed up with a letter to the NRC Chairman further detailing those concerns.  Welch, a Democrat, says there’s been no progress.   “We’ve just got to keep up the pressure for two reasons. First it really is going to make a difference in how this is handled around the Vernon reactor. But secondly this is going to set a precedent.  The NRC doesn’t have a game plan about how to seriously include the local stakeholders like the local business community and the local elected officials.  So we have to stay on this in order to make certain that the communities are heard.”

Entergy Vermont Yankee Spokesman Marty Cohn says the issues Congressman Welch has are with the NRC and points out that Vermont Yankee is compliant with decommissioning requirements. Cohn adds that the company does numerous outreach efforts.   “We meet regularly with the public. We’re participants in the Nuclear Decommissioning Citizen Advisory Panel.  We participate in a number of community groups and presentations and we have our now award winning cable show SafeStor Matters. With regard to state stakeholders we continually dialogue with representatives from the various state agencies and will continue to do so.”

Vermont Department of Public Service Commissioner Chris Recchia says Welch’s letter reinforces the concern that the state or local communities hosting nuclear plants have no direct role in the decommissioning process.   “It’s all in an effort to try and move toward the direction where the states and the local communities have at least a say in what’s going on.  Even if the NRC ultimately disagrees in what’s going on with our position at least we would have a mechanism to engage them in a discussion.”

On Thursday, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board issued an order granting Entergy’s motion to withdraw a license amendment that would have removed a requirement to provide the NRC with 30-day notice before taking money out of the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust fund.  Commissioner Recchia says the move by the federal board is good for Vermont.   “One we’re getting the 30 day notice reinstated and then two we’re getting conditions that make Entergy responsible for telling us if any of the funds they’re withdrawing for fall into categories that we have disputed as being eligible for decommissioning trust fund expenditures. So this is very, very good news for Vermont

Entergy is using the SAFESTOR method for decommissioning Vermont Yankee, which could take more than 60 years to complete.

The text of Congressman Welch's letter:

October 14, 2015

The Honorable Stephen Burns
Chairman
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Washington, DC 20555-0001

Dear Mr. Chairman:

Thank you for your testimony at the September 9, 2015 joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittees on Energy and Power, and Environment and the Economy.  I want to reiterate the concerns I raised at the hearing regarding the decommissioning of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee plant located in Vernon, Vermont.  
 
Specifically, I am deeply concerned about:
 
1) the lack of state and local stakeholder involvement in the decommissioning process;
 
2) questionable uses of the Decommissioning Trust Fund by Entergy; and
 
3) the reality that the use of the SAFSTOR decommissioning procedure will effectively delay the full cleanup and redevelopment of the Vermont Yankee site for decades.  
 
In addition, subsequent to that joint hearing, I have become very concerned about significant new developments in relation to Vermont Yankee emergency programs.

The lack of meaningful stakeholder participation in decisions related to Vermont Yankee’s decommissioning is unacceptable.  It is essential that Vermonters have a seat at the table throughout this process.  The NRC has failed to substantively engage state and local officials and appears to be increasingly relying on the perspective of the nuclear energy industry. I request that you creatively engage local stakeholders in a manner that goes beyond standard regulatory procedures to ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed.
 
The Decommissioning Trust Fund should not be used for non-decommissioning expenses. It is my understanding that the fund can only be used for expenses that reduce radiological levels at the site. Yet the NRC has granted preliminary approval to Entergy for several exemptions, including authorizing payment for spent fuel management, attorney fees, and even the company’s membership dues to the Nuclear Energy Institute.  These unjustified expenditures will further delay an already lengthy decommissioning process.  The NRC must be a careful steward of the fund to ensure that these ratepayer dollars are not diverted to pay for inappropriate or unauthorized expenses.
 
I have significant concerns with the decision by Entergy to use the “SAFSTOR” method of decommissioning.  The use of SAFSTOR will delay clean-up, waste disposal, and remediation of the Vermont Yankee site for generations. As a result, the community will be unable to redevelop the site for economically beneficial purposes.  While SAFSTOR clearly benefits Entergy, its use will render economic harm to the community. As an alternative, the NRC should consider accelerated options for decommissioning such as DECON, which would allow for prompt cleanup, redevelopment, and reuse of the Vermont Yankee site.
 
In addition to these three issues that I raised at the hearing, Vermont stakeholders have recently expressed concern about Vermont Yankee’s emergency programs. Specifically, it is my understanding that Entergy is proposing to reduce the size of the Emergency Planning Zone, reduce funding to the state of Vermont for emergency preparedness, and dismantle Vermont Yankee’s Emergency Response Data System (ERDS).  These proposals raise serious questions as to the ongoing safety precautions in place for a site that continues to be the host for a significant amount of highly-radioactive waste.  

While I understand that the NRC has already ruled on the issue of dismantling ERDS, I strongly urge the Commission to not prematurely reduce the size of the Emergency Planning Zone. I would also urge the Commission to bring Entergy to the table to negotiate in good faith with the State of Vermont on a reasonable level of financial support for emergency preparedness activities going forward.  

As you know, Vermont Yankee is the first merchant nuclear power plant in the country to be decommissioned. It is critical, therefore, that the NRC work closely with Vermont’s stakeholders to get it right by developing a model for the decommissioning of other merchant plants that respects and resolves the concerns of state and local stakeholders.
 
I look forward to your timely response and stand ready to work with the Commission to address these issues.

Sincerely,

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