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Up & Atom

On February 7—the same day that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued its updated Regulatory Analysis focused on making the decommissioning process more efficient and less costly—two pieces of legislation were reintroduced in the Senate that would have the opposite effect.

The Safe and Secure Decommissioning Act of 2018 (S. 2396), introduced by Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and cosponsored by Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), would prohibit the NRC from authorizing waivers or exceptions to emergency planning requirements until all fuel has been moved to dry storage containers. According to Senator Gillibrand, “Americans should know that safety is the most important priority at nuclear plants across the country, including at plants that are being decommissioned.” This legislation, however, appears to be aimed at directly countering the NRC’s current plan to pursue rulemaking to propose a graded approach to emergency planning that is commensurate with the reductions in radiological risk at the four stages (or levels) of decommissioning:

  1. Permanent cessation of operations and defueling—all fuel is removed from the reactor vessel
  2. Sufficient decay of fuel in the spent fuel pool such that it would not reach ignition temperature within 10 hours under adiabatic heat-up conditions (water drained from the spent fuel pools)
  3. Transfer of all fuel to dry storage
  4. Removal of all fuel from the site

The Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2018 (S. 2388) introduced by Senator Sanders and cosponsored by Senators Markey, Harris, and Gillibrand would require a more lengthy, multistep process for preparation, review, and approval of Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports (PSDARs) that must be submitted to the NRC within two years of shutdown. Specifically, it would require consultation with state, tribal, and local governments and formal approval of the PSDAR by the NRC. According to Senator Sanders, “Communities experiencing the safety and economic impacts of nuclear plant decommissioning deserve a role in shaping those decommissioning plans for nuclear reactors near them.” Again, this legislation appears to be directed at the NRC’s proposed decommissioning rulemaking, which leaves in place the current PSDAR process (implemented via rulemaking in 1996) that includes extensive public involvement but does not mandate consultation or require formal NRC approval.

Given the NRC’s extensive analysis of and experience with these issues, and the fact that decommissioning already has a substantial demonstrated safety record, it is not entirely clear what problems the two pieces of legislation are intended to address. And if anything, the decommissioning experience in Vermont illustrates the already robust role of the state and local communities in the process. But it is clear that at least some states want an even broader role in decommissioning, and we anticipate this trend to only continue as more plants announce early shutdowns and plans for decommissioning.

We will continue to follow these and similar legislative efforts.