State Worries Feds Too Lax On Yankee Oversight

Jul 27, 2015

The state of Vermont and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission don't always see eye to eye. The state and the feds disagreed over the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant when the Vernon reactor was operating. And now that the plant is shut down, the state has challenged the federal agency over emergency planning and decommissioning.

Now Vermont is pushing for a greater role for states as the nuclear industry begins to close aging reactors around the country.

As head of the non-profit Nuclear Information and Research Service, Tim Judson has closely observed the industry as it wrangles with regulators around the country. He's also watched Vermont's efforts to push the federal NRC bureaucracy. And he says Vermont is taking the lead that other states may follow.

“We see Vermont as really being on the cutting edge of ensuring the best possible outcome under the circumstances because the state took a proactive approach toward negotiating with Entergy about what decommissioning is going to be like,” he says.

But being out front doesn't always feel like progress for Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Department of Public Service. As head of the state agency that represents ratepayers, Recchia says he's frustrated that the NRC has allowed Entergy Vermont Yankee to use some of its decommissioning funds to  store spent fuel.

"What we're discovering as the first kind of the first merchant plant to go through this process is that (the NRC) are making it up as they go along. And frankly, my frustration is that they're making decisions that are narrowing our ability to participate instead of expanding them,” Recchia says.

Vermont Yankee ceased operation in 2014 but still faces a decades-long decommissioning process. Vermont is pushing for a greater role for states in the process as the nuclear industry begins to close aging reactors around the country.
Credit Toby Talbot / AP

Merchant plants like Entergy-Vermont Yankee operated outside of traditional state utility regulation. Judson and Recchia point out the company has layers of limited liability corporations that they say could fail to pay for decommissioning and clean-up. Recchia says that’s part of the brave new world Vermont and other states are trying to deal with.

“I think the reality is the NRC has not really thought about this and when I say this, I mean several things: One, decommissioning plants in general, Two, the idea of merchants plants is really new to them,” he says.

“And that's all we're really trying to do is to give states a role, a meaningful role, in how these plants shut down and wind down.”

Recchia says his beef is not with Entergy — which sought and obtained the NRC's permission to use $225 million of its roughly $660 million fund to handle the spent fuel. Rather, he says the NRC was wrong to grant that permission.

"We see Vermont as really being on the cutting edge... because the state took a proactive approach toward negotiating with Entergy about what decommissioning is going to be like." - Tim Judson, Nuclear Information and Research Service

"This is another example where they just grant exemptions or ignore their rules,” he says. “The NRC says you can only use decommissioning trust fund for things that reduce radiological exposure, period."

"That means not taxes and not spent fuel. So we're just reading the rules and going, hello? What's going on here? And we're not getting a hearing," Recchia says.

The state wants Yankee to begin decommissioning in 30 or 40 years. And Recchia's concerned that the decommissioning schedule could be slowed if funds are used for other purposes.

“It does affect the potential timetable, and that’s what we’re most concerned about,” he says.

But NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan says it reviewed Entergy's plans under federal rules that allow nuclear operators to wait 60 years before decommissioning.

"I think the expectation on the part of the state is that it's going to happen much sooner than that. But when we look at it based on the 60-year timeframe, we don't see any reason why they cannot use money for spent fuel storage management costs as this fund continues to build up,” Sheehan says.

Vermont Yankee says it's committed to starting decommissioning before the full 60 years that the NRC allows.

Company spokesman Martin Cohn says, "This will have no effect on the decommissioning timetable. In fact, this was always part of our decommissioning timetable that we put forth in our post decommissioning report.” 

Entergy and the NRC say the company's license requires Energy to show every year whether the fund is growing fast enough to do the job.