The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Monday formally approved a reduction in the emergency preparedness requirements for the retired Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Massachusetts.
The changes include elimination of a dedicated 10-mile emergency planning zone in the license for the Cape Cod property. The requirement for a specific off-site radiological emergency response plan will also be changed to an “all hazard” approach, according to the NRC.
The commission voted 3-1 in favor of the update in notation votes submitted from Sept. 26 to Oct. 23. Chairman Kristine Svinicki and Commissioners Annie Caputo and David Wright, all Republicans, voted to approve the request filed by then-plant owner Entergy. Commissioner Jeff Baran, the sole Democrat on the current panel, opposed the request.
These revisions will not go into effect before April 1, 2020. The NRC first in coming weeks will issue the exemptions, a safety assessment, and corresponding amendments to Pilgrim’s federal license, the agency said in a press release.
New Orleans-based power company Entergy closed the 47-year-old single-reactor plant in May, and on Aug. 9 submitted its request for emergency-planning exemptions to the commission. Less than three weeks later, it completed the sale of the property to energy technology firm Holtec International for decommissioning, site restoration, and spent fuel management. The exemption request was transferred to subsidiary Holtec Decommissioning International, now the plant’s licensed owner and operator.
In the release, the NRC said the request and approval were appropriate given the significantly reduced hazard posed by a retired nuclear facility. The danger of the release of radiation into the environment is far lower, the release says, and there are “significantly fewer” forms of possible accidents that could occur once a reactor is permanently powered down and its reactor vessel emptied of fuel.
The findings are based on NRC staff’s evaluation of the safety analysis provided by Entergy.
Pilgrim’s reactor was defueled on June 9. There are 2,958 spent-fuel assemblies in the plant’s cooling pool and another 1,156 assemblies already in dry-cask storage. Construction of a second storage pad is underway, with concrete scheduled to be poured soon, according to Pat O’ Brien, a spokesman for Comprehensive Decommissioning International. The Holtec-SNC-Lavalin joint venture will carry out the actual decommissioning, which is due to be largely completed by 2027.
Massachusetts has been wary of the Pilgrim ownership change, requesting a hearing in the NRC review of the transfer of the plant’s federal licenses from Entergy to Holtec. Its primary concerns have been ensuring there is enough money to pay for decommissioning and the claim that the NRC did not conduct a legally mandatory environmental assessment or supplemental environmental impact statement for the license transfer.
When the NRC approved the license transfers in August before deciding on the still-open hearing petitions from Massachusetts and local advocacy group Pilgrim Watch, the commonwealth sued in federal court in September to force the agency to vacate its decision.
Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on Monday quickly criticized the agency decision on the emergency preparedness exemptions. The lawmaker plans next week to again submit legislation he and several colleagues first filed in 2018, which would prevent exemptions to safety and emergency preparedness regulations until a nuclear plant’s used fuel is all in dry storage.
That bill, the Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2018, was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and never got a vote.
“Pilgrim should not get an exemption for key emergency preparedness and planning regulations while dangerous nuclear spent fuel is still cooling in open pools and threatening local residents,” Markey said in a prepared statement. “The NRC’s decision is shocking but not surprising to all of us who have watched how the public’s concerns have been consistently ignored during the decommissioning process at the Pilgrim plant.”
The NRC had already since 1987 approved emergency preparedness exemption requests for 16 commercial atomic energy facilities that were in decommissioning, Caputo wrote in her comments for the vote.
Svinicki, Caputo, and Wright said they were persuaded by agency staff’s finding that the exemptions would not pose a safety threat around Pilgrim. Specifically, Svinicki wrote in her comments, staff determined that the updated requirements “would continue to provide reasonable assurance” against the release of radiation into the environment exceeding the cap under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency early phase protective action guide of one roentgen equivalent man. In addition, “in the unlikely event of a beyond-design-basis accident resulting in a loss of all spent fuel cooling, there would be sufficient time to initiate appropriate mitigation actions,” according to the chairman.
Baran strenuously disagreed. In a three-page comment, with footnotes, the commissioner said preparations for a radiological event have never been solely based on the probability of such an incident. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and state governments also do not accept that an all-hazards emergency response plan would be sufficient for management of an incident involving radioactive used fuel in a cooling pool, he wrote. He quoted a FEMA assessment of the exemption request for Pilgrim: “The belief expressed by the NRC staff that State and local governments surrounding a decommissioning plant which are not involved in formal radiological emergency planning would nonetheless respond expeditiously adn with optimum effectiveness to an actual radiological emergency in a coordinated fashion … is open to question.”
Holtec has to date announced plans to acquire several shuttered or soon-to-close nuclear power plants for decommissioning, with each site’s decommissioning trust serving as a source of potential profit. It sealed the purchase of Exelon’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey on July 1 and intends to buy Entergy’s Indian Point Energy Center in upstate New York and Palisades Power Plant in Michigan.