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Nuclear industry reps visit Vermont Yankee

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.

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