Policy

Nuclear Plants Go Belly Up in Democratic Districts. Then What?

Most declining plants are in blue areas, and Congress is taking notice

There wasn’t much celebration when the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut its doors — just worry over how to decommission. (Michael Springer/Getty Images file photo)

In Vermont, the relationship between the town of Vernon and its nuclear power plant, known as the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station, had always been contentious.

From 1970s-era antinuclear protests to more recent legal battles over a proposal to extend the plant’s license, Vermont residents and their state legislature kept a skeptical eye on the power source, which at one point provided some 70 percent of the state’s electricity.

Still, when New Orleans-based Entergy announced in 2014 that it would close the plant by the end of the year and ahead of its intended closure in the 2030s, there wasn’t much celebration. Instead the community’s focus turned almost immediately to ensuring the plant was decommissioned as quickly and as safely as possible.

But as folks in Vernon and other communities across the country have learned as more nuclear plants reach the end of their operating lives, state and local governments have little legal or regulatory say over how companies approach the cleanup and radioactive legacy of their local nuclear power plants.

Adding to the tensions, federal regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are perceived in some of these communities as overly deferential to plant operators, though those decisions are backed by risk analysis.

“You have no control,” said Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission in Brattleboro, Vermont. “There’s an illusion of engagement, but it’s really only between the operator and the NRC.”

In the case of Vermont, which passed a state law requiring a citizen’s advisory panel, Entergy and citizens engaged in a public dialogue that did introduce more transparency into the process but ultimately resulted in little say for the community, according to the former chairwoman of the panel, Brattleboro resident Kate O’Connor.

“It was really frustrating,” O’Connor said. “You come to the realization that there really are no rules for decommissioning.”

Those complaints have registered with Vermont’s congressional delegation.

“The people of Vernon, Vermont, have been knocking on the NRC’s doors trying to make sure they have a seat at the table,” said Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat from the state. Communities should have a right to that input, he said. “Every community going through this is facing these concerns.”

The concerns — including how quickly plants are required to be torn down, how the owners pay for the cleanup and even enforcement of safety regulations — have lawmakers in Congress increasingly paying attention to the decommissioning process and the NRC’s role in it as the number of communities hosting shuttered or shuttering plants grows.

The attention has mainly come from Democratic lawmakers because most of the declining plants are in their districts. If the House, Senate or both flip in November, Congress may take on the NRC’s oversight of the decommissioning process, with the aim to include more local say.

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The nuclear industry has plenty of experience decommissioning its plants. Some 10 reactors have been replaced, largely without incident. Another 20 have been decommissioned, or are in that process, also largely without incident or complication. But fears of a repeat Fukushima Daiichi, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island accident still linger.

“We have really built a skilled decommissioning workforce,” said Rod McCullum, a decommissioning policy director for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group. “While we are working hard and having a lot of success in preserving the existing nuclear fleet that we consider a tremendous clean energy asset, the fact of the matter is that the shutdown of some older plants was always inevitable.”

The act of decommissioning a nuclear plant carries its own issues, such as the fact that almost every part of the plant has some level of radiological exposure that can harm humans. That means materials like cement and steel must be handled cautiously and go to landfills set aside for radioactive waste.

“Decommissioning is a gigantic industrial cleanup of huge industrial facilities that have a singular item, nuclear waste, that makes it more complicated and challenging than almost any other industrial cleanup,” said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, at a congressional briefing this summer.

But radiation in concrete or worker clothing has a shorter half-life than the spent nuclear fuel sitting in pools on the site. For some of the isotopes in steel and concrete, the radioactivity decreases significantly after 50 years compared to the tens of thousands of years for the spent fuel.

Fast or slow?

NRC guidelines for decommissioning give plant operators three options.

Immediate decommissioning, known as DECON, is the preferred option for communities making the loudest noise about the process. From a community perspective, that means the site can return to use much faster while also decreasing the risk of an accident.

Many communities worry that operators will instead choose a second option, known as SAFESTOR, where a plant is mothballed for up to 60 years before the physical cleanup begins. In such cases, the communities bear the plant’s legacy — a contaminated, unusable site — long after the jobs have departed.

Plant operators must submit their decommissioning plan to the NRC within two years after formally informing the NRC of their intent to permanently close a reactor. The NRC reviews that strategy, but current regulations do not require the agency to approve or reject the plan, leaving the final decision about how to approach the cleanup to the plant operator.

“When the NRC cedes that regulatory authority and doesn’t keep regulatory requirements [that] you have to meet ‘x’ environmental standards or ‘y’ cleanup standards, there is no opportunity for the state, for the local community, for any NGO, for any tribes to intervene and say that’s not good enough,” Fettus said at the Hill briefing.

The operator decision can be driven by how much money it has set aside for the cleanup. As required by NRC regulations, plant operators must have some type of financial mechanism, such as a trust fund, to cover the estimated cost of retiring the reactors at the end of their expected life span.

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But should a plant shut down prematurely, as in the case of Vermont Yankee and other plants due to increased competition from natural gas and renewable energy, operators may need more time to allow their funds to grow.

According to an annual study conducted by investment research firm Callan LLC, total estimated U.S. commercial decommissioning costs amounted to $91 billion in 2016 for 99 operating reactors and 11 nonoperating reactors. The trust funds set aside for the cleanup purposes were just $64 billion, although many still have time to catch up. In other words, if every nuclear plant shut down today, there would not be enough money to complete all the cleanups.

Also frustrating communities are exemptions the NRC is handing out to operators that ease safety and emergency preparedness requirements for the plants during decommissioning. Operators say the exemptions are needed because NRC regulations do not reflect the decreased threat of a shuttered plant with no fuel in its reactor.

New rules weighed

To address concerns on all sides of the process, the NRC launched a rulemaking to determine how and where it should adjust regulations. It is likely to put new standards in place by 2019 at the earliest.

Draft changes offered by the NRC staff in May — but which haven’t yet received the status of a proposed rule — would codify the exemptions in a way that speeds their approval. That process could save operators millions in licensing fees and time.

The proposed language has environmental groups and Democratic senators complaining the rules would not do enough to protect public participation and safety.

In comments to the NRC about the proposal, regional and community groups called for mandatory creation of local panels to advise on the decommissioning process.

In a letter to NRC Chairwoman Kristine Svinicki, four senators from states with idle plants or plants intending to close in the near future called the proposal “an industry wish list.” The senators were Democrats Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Those senators earlier this year filed a package of bills that would preclude the NRC from issuing exemptions from safety and emergency preparedness standards at idled plants until all the nuclear waste stored in spent fuel pools is moved to dry cask storage.

The bills also would introduce more public comment into preparation of decommissioning plans for the tear-down process. One bill would require the NRC to publicly approve or reject a proposed plan, introducing more federal oversight into the cleanup.

The legislation “would transform a process that is weighted almost entirely toward the power plant licensees into one that strikes a reasonable balance between licensees and the impacted communities,” Sanders said in a statement.

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s McCullum argues the decommissioning process works smoothly in many communities. He points to the Kewaunee Nuclear Power Station in Wisconsin, which closed in 2013 as electricity prices were falling because of cheap natural gas. The plant was quietly mothballed through the SAFESTOR process without fanfare, McCullum said.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution” to public engagement, McCullum said.

“You couldn’t take the Vermont model and put it in Southern California, and you couldn’t take the Southern California model and put it in Vermont,” he added. “So, I would simply ask, what does Congress expect to do to solve this problem?”

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