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Up & Atom

Vermont Senators Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders along with Representative Peter Welch recently introduced the Nuclear Plant Decommissioning Act of 2020. The bill, if enacted, would provide grants to local communities affected by the closure and decommissioning of a nuclear plant. One grant would provide funds to support local decommissioning advisory boards, which would eventually be paid for by a filing fee for Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports (PSDARs). The other grant would provide economic development funds to local communities affected by plant closures. Along with these two grant programs, the bill would also establish direct payments to communities where spent nuclear fuel is stored during and after decommissioning at a rate of $15 per kilogram of spent fuel.

The bill would also make changes to the NRC’s decommissioning process. The bill would allow states to have significant input during the development of PSDARs and also recommend changes to the NRC. The NRC would then have to formally accept or deny the PSDAR along with the state’s proposed changes. Several of these changes reflect increased efforts by some states and local communities to have a greater role in nuclear decommissioning and to offset revenues formerly obtained from the operating units. Interestingly, some of those same states and communities opposed operation of the same nuclear plants for decades.

We summarize the key provisions of the bill below.

Financial Assistance Provisions

The bill seeks to establish three programs to financially assist communities affected by the shutdown of a nuclear plant.

  • The first program would provide federal grants to support local decommissioning advisory boards. For the first three years, the grants would be paid from a general appropriation and then from an account funded by a $500,000 fee charged to a licensee when it files a proposed PSDAR.
  • The second program would provide economic development grants to local communities affected by a nuclear plant closure. This grant program would be funded by an annual appropriation of $35 million through fiscal year 2029.
  • The third program would provide direct payments to communities where spent nuclear fuel is stored during and after decommissioning. The bill would pay each community a rate of $15 per kilogram of spent fuel. Funds would be paid out from an appropriation for this program.

Proposed PSDAR Changes

Under current NRC regulations (10 CFR 50.82), licensees are required to file PSDARs with the NRC within two years of permanent cessation of operations and provide a copy to the affected state(s). The NRC, however, does not formally approve (or reject) PSDARs. The bill would change this by amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (42 USC § 2011 et seq.) to add Section 113, “Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Reports.” Section 113 would do the following:

  • Require licensees to consult with state and local governments before submitting a proposed PSDAR. After a proposed PSDAR is submitted, the NRC must solicit public comments on it and conduct at least two public meetings near the site.
  • Allow the state where the facility is located an opportunity to file a statement of support, statement of conditional support with proposed changes, or statement of nonsupport of the proposed PSDAR. If the state proposes changes to the proposed PSDAR, the Commission must include each change in the final PSDAR unless the Commission determines the change violates the law or that the total costs of the change “substantially outweigh the safety, economic or environmental benefits of the change to the host State.”
  • Require the NRC to formally accept or reject a proposed PSDAR along with all proposed changes from the state. To be acceptable, the PSDAR must include the requirement that the licensee comply with all state laws “relating to air, water, or soil quality or radiological standards.” The NRC must also determine that the PSDAR provides for the “overall protection of human health and the environment” and that the licensee has a “substantial likelihood” of implementing the PSDAR and completing the decommissioning process on schedule and on budget.

Given the number of session days left this year and the upcoming election, this bill will likely not be reported out of committee before Congress adjourns in December. If that is the case, it will need to be reintroduced after the next session of Congress begins in January.

Further, if the bill moves forward, the sources of funding for the various provisions outlined above will have to be carefully scrutinized, as any further financial obligations on owners of decommissioning plants would likely have to come from the limited decommissioning trust funds. In addition, parts of the bill may implicate federal preemption issues, which would also have to be closely considered.