VERNON >> Nuclear industry representatives believe plant decommissioning processes could go quicker if rules around it were changed to fit the current landscape in which shutdowns are happening more often than before.
"It helps if we actually see one and see what these guys are going through," said Rod McCullum, senior director for used fuel and decommissioning at the Nuclear Energy Institute, during an interview at the Vernon-based plant Vermont Yankee on Thursday. "The common interest here is my industry doesn't want to be in the business of babysitting shutdown plants that have a bunch of fuel and the community doesn't want to be in the business of having one of those in their community."
The Nuclear Energy Institute represents the nuclear industry by speaking with members of Congress, the White House, the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the media and community groups. The Washington, D.C.-based trade association tends to be involved with litigation that will affect the industry as a whole.
Mark Richter, senior project manager for used fuel and decommissioning programs at Nuclear Energy Institute, and McCullum are largely focused on interactions with the NRC.
"There's a lot of regulatory activity going on in respect to decommissioning plants," McCullum said, noting five reactors at four sites are involved in decommissioning but another five reactors are going up. "By that I mean there's rulemaking in play. The industry has successfully completed decommissioning 11 of these plants but all 11 of those shut down in a different world."
Plants going through that process now, he said, are affected by the terrorist attacks in New York City on Sept. 11 and the nuclear disaster at Japan's Fukushima plant. But there was also the termination of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository project and utility deregulation.
Richter and McCullum are looking to make decommissioning regulations "more appropriate" for the times.
"The regulator was simply doing other things, not expecting a wave of shutdowns. Our gas got really cheap. Fracking has really changed the marketplace," said McCullum. "Because of all the regulatory things that happened due to those things, it is now hard to get through the transition from being an operating plant to a decommissioning plant."
Emergency planning regulations require "a lot of inefficiency and paperwork," according to McCullum, who would like to see a rule that "simply says when you get all the fuel out of a reactor that you should be able to step down your plant."
"Although (the plant) is de-fueled, we still have a license and some of the regulations are written so that if you are the owner of a license you must do X, Y and Z," said Chris Wamser, site vice president at Vermont Yankee. "There's not in all cases a differentiation that says, 'But if you're out of business then you don't have to do it anymore.'"
License exemption requests can cause members of the public to worry plants are not following the rules. McCullum sees this happening with plants around the country.
"In the interest of openness and transparency, it's not a good way to do business," he said, explaining money from Yankee's decommissioning trust fund has been spent on exemption applications but also on requirements no longer relevant to a plant in this process.
Regulations around the trust fund require a plant like Vermont Yankee to wait until the fund has grown through interest before taking the facility down, McCullum told the Reformer.
"If you're not spending the trust fund, carrying things you don't need while you're waiting for regulatory paperwork to be approved, you get to that point faster. What the stakeholders tend to want here is the plant torn down and radioactive materials shipped off site," said McCullum. "Sadly, these guys (Vermont Yankee) are more of a lessons-learned than chance to fix the problem. They're already going to get their exemptions and amendments by the time that we get this rule."
In a letter to the NRC, McCullum's group also urges consideration around insurance coverage, security, work hours, staffing and training, equipment updates, Fukushima orders and continuation of licenses.
"Targeted rulemaking," the letter said. "Will define a decommissioning transition process that continues to provide reasonable assurance of public safety while ensuring that funds set aside for decommissioning are judiciously applied and are not used unnecessarily while licensing actions and exemption requests are under review."
The letter said the group intends to submit detailed rulemaking proposals related to the Post Shutdown Activities Report approval, decommissioning cost estimate, Irradiated Fuel Management Plan approval, License Termination plan, state and local government role, aging management of casks, trust fund formula and disbursements, the Emergency Response Data Status, and required status reports to the NRC during decommissioning.
"The industry is only one voice in this. We're under no illusion that everything we'd like to see get into the rule will get into the rule," said McCullum. "We're trying to communicate with other public groups and stakeholders and find out where we can we can have common ground, where NRC might hear a common message."
Senior Communications Specialist for Vermont Yankee Decommissioning Martin Cohn said the goal in Vernon is to decommission but money is needed to do so. A $1.2 billion price tag includes $817 million for a license transfer to address demolition, $57 million for site restoration and $368 million for spent fuel management.
Having taken out a $145 million line of credit to move fuel from spent fuel storage containers to dry casks, Cohn said the amount will not come out of Vermont Yankee's trust fund.
"We're not delaying it. We figured out a way to make it happen," he said. "The credit line is going to pay for the campaign. So that's a saving. It will help the trust fund grow."
But McCullum said the spent fuel "shouldn't be here," pointing to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act which says the government has an obligation to remove it. The industry, he said, was born with this understanding.
"These guys have contracts with the federal government to remove the spent fuel and take it to a deep geological depository for final disposal. That's a proven technology," he said. "The cost is significant because it shouldn't have to be paid. They can recover some of it through litigation with the Department of Energy."
While the Nevada, Ariz.-based Yucca Mountain project's future is largely unknown, McCullum said two sites in Texas and New Mexico could be ready by the early 2020s.
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt, recently submitted a letter to the NRC outlining his concerns around the decommissioning process. But missing from it, in Cohn's view, was any mention of removing the spent fuel pool.
"That is the biggest obstacle to completing decommissioning," said McCullum. "All these transition points we're trying to get these regulations improved on, you know, they exist because the spent fuel is there. First, the spent fuel is in the reactor then there's a transition point and it's in the pool. And there's another transition point when it goes to the casks. There needs to be a point where it goes to Yucca Mountain or any of these interim sites."
With spent fuel on site, Wamser said future use of the Vernon site will be "significantly limited." McCullum said storage is seen as an economic opportunity for communities where land would not be used otherwise.