NRC commissioners approve elimination of EPZ at Yankee

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BRATTLEBORO >> The commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have given their seal of approval to Entergy's proposal to reduce its commitment to emergency response at its Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.

By a vote of four to zero, the commissioners forwarded the plan to the staff of the NRC for implementation. One commissioner however, suggested the NRC take a "graded approach" that includes four steps to reducing the footprint of the plants 10-mile emergency preparedness zone.

In 2000, the staff of the NRC presented a rulemaking recommendation related to decommissioned plants and emergencies. That rulemaking process was slowed following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the NRC still doesn't have "regulations specifically tailored for permanently shut down reactors," according to comments submitted by Commissioner Jeff Baran.

The tiered approach includes keeping all safety measures in place for one year after the plant ceases operating. In the second phase, ending six years after shut down, the plant would be required to maintain communications with offsite emergency response organizations and other aspects of the emergency plan. In the third phase, once all fuel has been removed from the spent fuel and stored in dry casks, emergency requirements would be similar to those for other independent spent fuel storage installation. Only in the fourth phase, wrote Baran, when all the spent fuel has been removed from the site, should Entergy be allowed to cease all of its offsite emergency planning and communications.

However, wrote Chairman Stephen Burns, "There is much to be learned from what has transpired since the staff's proposal in 2000, and we should allow the staff time to perform an up-to-date evaluation of the available information to inform a decision on appropriate generic requirements for plants that are under decommissioning."

Until the staff has finished the process, wrote Burns, "our current practice of approving exemptions based on site-specific evaluations, such as those performed by the staff in reviewing the Entergy exemption request, is sound."

"The majority of the commission agreed that at other plants the precedent has been set," said NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan. "Once the most recent fuel has a chance to cool down, the risk of a severe accident involving the spent fuel is greatly reduced. Therefore, it is acceptable to do away with the EPZ in April 2016."

According to Sheehan, even though the four commissioners approved Entergy's plan, the staff "still has to deal with the nuts and bolts of the submitted proposed changes."

"Entergy now has to put it into its emergency plan and the staff has to review it for consistency," said Sheehan.

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The state of Vermont has requested a hearing on the exemption requests. Last week, the NRC established a panel of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to review the state's concerns and determine whether a hearing should be scheduled.

"Vermont is challenging the end of the EPZ and the changes proposed by Entergy," said Sheehan. "The ASLB hasn't, at this point, accepted the request for a hearing, but the panel will consider the state's position."

Martin Cohn, spokesman for the Vermont Yankee decommissioning project, said Entergy is in possession of a copy of the commissioners' decisions.

"It is looking very favorable that we are gong to get our emergency response organization in place by April 2016," said Cohn.

The reactor at Vermont Yankee went permanently offline on Dec. 19, 2014. As is typical in the case of plants undergoing decommissioning, the operator of Yankee has asked to reduce its responsibility for offsite planning for emergencies, including contributing to the funding of emergency responders, reducing plant staffing, limiting its off-site engagement in emergency drills and shutting down its off-site emergency center.

That means in April 2016, the plant will be disconnected from the emergency sirens that dot the landscape in the 10-mile EPZ around the plant, will stop sending batteries to those who have emergency radios, will no longer pay for iodine tablets and won't send the yearly calendars to all those who live and work in the EPZ.

Currently, staffing at Yankee is at 316 employees, down from a normal high of about 620. By June 2016, staffing is expected to be reduced to 127 employees.

Entergy has opted for the SAFSTOR method of decommissioning, meaning the plant will be placed in "mothballs" until the decommissioning trust fund has reached the levels necessary to complete the job of returning the site to the condition it was in when the plant was built. Estimates for cleanup stand around $1.2 billion and the fund currently has about half that amount. According to NRC regulations, under the SAFSTOR option, Entergy has up to 60 years to complete cleanup.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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