Jeremy L. Dillon
As an aging fleet of nuclear reactors begin to cease their operations, an increasing amount of public stakeholders are taking an active interest in the decommissioning of the reactors, according to a panel held this week at the 29th Annual Institute of Nuclear Materials Management’s Spent Fuel Management Seminar. In the past year, a wave of utilities, including Entergy’s Vermont Yankee and Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, announced that they would be pre-maturely closing the facilities, prompting negotiations with local stakeholders to make sure the decommissioning of the facilities would take place in a timely fashion. “Stakeholders increasingly want to be part of the process,” said Larry Camper, director of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s division of waste management and environmental protection. “They want a visible process for decommissioning. They want to be actively engaged. We actually received a request by a coalition from the decommissioning of the SONGS reactor that wanted recognition by the NRC, and we had to write a letter saying we don’t recognize groups like that. We are nuclear regulators, and we encouraged them to work with the utility.”
One of the major issues concerning this new group of stakeholders revolves around the timeliness of the decommissioning process. Many of the utilities have opted for some form of SAFESTOR, in which the plant can sit for up to 60 years before active decommissioning takes place, as a way to grow the decommissioning fund and reduce the radioactivity of the plant. “The mantra that you hear sometimes when you are out there—we certainly heard it during a public meeting we had at the SONGS facility in September of last year—was take it away sooner. Why 60 years? Take it away sooner,” Camper said. Rather than have the plant continue to sit in their states, stakeholders have been vocal about their disdain for SAFESTOR. In Vermont, state officials held the license renewal for Vermont Yankee’s last year of operation in contention to make sure Entergy would start active decommissioning sooner rather than later.
Local and state politics are also playing a role in the decommissioning process. Some states have levied stricter regulations than NRC decommissioning guidelines in an effort to speed the process up. “Some states—the state of Maine and state of Connecticut come to mind—impose different regulatory cleanup criteria for decommissioning so it is important if you are a utility in one of these states to know what it is,” Camper said. “I realize that our criteria in Part 20 and the question of federal preemption come to mind, but utilities have never chosen to make an issue of that and the Commission has never chosen to make an issue of that.” The states can also create a hostile working environment that prompts utilities to shut down earlier as well. “We also see local and state politics rear its head in several recent decisions, San Onofre being foremost among them,” said Jeff Hays of AREVA. “You can kind of imagine the political environment on the coast of Southern California, and that in fact looks like it did play out quite prominently in the decision making of Southern California Edison. Several similar influences are under put in Vermont.”
With increasing stakeholder engagement in the process, there is hope that there will be increased pressure on the states to work on a spent fuel disposal solution as the used fuel sits on-site. “If you stop to look at how many nuclear power plants have interim storage plants, it is a lot of facilities that have dry cask storage and that will have dry cask storage for the foreseeable future,” Camper said. “The question that comes to my mind is when will those various states work more together to say ‘what are we going to do about his problem as a country?’ Increasingly, I think you will hear that kind of commentary from the states that are seemingly having individual site storage.”