The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently released a draft report from the agency’s Working Group on Reactor Decommissioning Financial Assurance (DFA). Comments on the draft report are due by April 21, 2020.

The agency assembled the working group in 2019 to examine the implications of an increasing trend in the use of third-party business models for decommissioning nuclear power plants. The working group, composed of NRC personnel from the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, Nuclear Reactor Regulation, Regional Offices, and the Office of the General Counsel, undertook a comprehensive review of current DFA requirements to identify potential regulatory gaps or policy issues and recommend potential program enhancements.

The NRC’s Reactor Decommissioning Financial Assurance Working Group recently held a public meeting to receive comments on potential guidance updates before publishing its final report. Prior to the public meeting, the working group shared a presentation summarizing its findings and proposals.

As background, the working group was established in September 2019 to review the NRC’s current decommissioning financial assurance processes in response to the growing use of third-party decommissioning business models. In general, this business model has the licensee sell its assets, including the decommissioning trust fund, and transfer its license—either temporarily or permanently—to a third party who then performs the decommissioning work before the license is terminated and the site released for unrestricted use. The working group was tasked with identifying potential regulatory gaps or policy issues related to adequate financial assurances and making recommendations to address them.

In SECY-19-0068 dated July 1 but recently made available, the NRC staff has asked the Commission to approve a proposed direct final rule that would eliminate one of the two financial tests used to qualify a company to issue a parent guarantee for decommissioning funding assurance. The NRC staff cites a 2010 Dodd-Frank Act mandate that agencies remove references to credit ratings in their regulations and substitute alternative standards of creditworthiness. However, rather than substituting alternative standards, the NRC staff proposes to simply eliminate one of its two current financial tests, and instead rely upon the single remaining test. Unfortunately, many companies that would qualify under the current financial test based on having an investment-grade credit rating do not qualify under the alternative test that would remain. As such, this change would heighten the credit requirements for using a parent guarantee and limit the availability of parent guarantees to provide financial assurance for decommissioning. Nonetheless, the NRC staff considers the proposal “non‑controversial” and seeks to issue the change to the regulations as a direct final rule.

It is a fairly common misperception that operating nuclear power plants in the United States depress local property values. This assumption was refuted in recent regulatory proceedings in the Northeast, where detailed studies of local real estate records confirmed earlier studies finding no adverse impact on the property value of homes in proximity to a nuclear power facility or its associated spent fuel. Specifically, perceptions of risk and stigma associated with operating nuclear facilities do not appear to translate into market behavior in the form of a reduction of home sale prices in the vicinity of such facilities. In fact, those studies suggest there may be a positive impact on surrounding communities in the form of reduced residential property taxes for a given level of public expenditures. In practice, it seems that home buyers and sellers are far more pragmatic in their decisions.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on October 11 issued its consent to the transfer of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station (Vermont Yankee) from Entergy Corporation (Entergy) to NorthStar Group Services, Inc. (NorthStar). The transfer paves the way for the accelerated decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, which could be completed as early as 2026.

Just as importantly for the nuclear industry as a whole, the NRC’s consent to the proposed transfer signals for the first time its willingness to consent to a transfer of a nuclear power plant license where: (1) title to the spent fuel is transferred to the new owner; and (2) spent fuel management costs will be recovered in a future settlement of litigation with the US Department of Energy (DOE). These are new precedents that have significant implications for future transfers of shutdown plants.

The commissioners from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) held a joint meeting to discuss grid reliability and cybersecurity, including issues such as nuclear new build that factor into power availability. Both NRC and FERC staff provided presentations on the activities of both agencies to promote a stable, resilient, and secure grid, and a representative from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) addressed grid reliability.

Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey submitted a letter on April 23 to Chairman Kristine Svinicki of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expressing serious concerns over the storage of spent nuclear fuel at US nuclear sites, particularly at shutdown nuclear plants. Mr. Markey stated that the “NRC regulations must ensure that dry casks are not vulnerable to flooding, corrosion, and other damage, especially as climate change contributes to rising sea levels and increasingly severe and unpredictable storms.” About a month earlier, following the March 21, 2018, oversight hearing in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Mr. Markey had submitted similar questions to the NRC, including “how and whether climate change projections are integrated into the NRC’s Safety Standards and how they will be included in the NRC’s forthcoming rule governing decommissioned nuclear plants.” In his most recent letter, he requested responses to four specific questions on the issue, including: “What is the protocol for continual monitoring of spent fuel sites?”, “What time span and which climate models are used for post-Fukushima flooding reevaluation?”, and “What research has the NRC done on possible corrosion of the dry casks by exposure to salt water?”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff has publicly released a copy of SECY-18-0055 (dated May 7, 2018), which seeks Commission approval to publish a proposed rule to amend NRC regulations related to the decommissioning of nuclear power reactors. If approved, the NRC Staff will publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register for a 75-day public comment period. The proposed rule, which is accompanied by a draft regulatory analysis and a draft environmental assessment, represents the latest step in a rulemaking process that the NRC staff commenced in December 2014, when the Commission directed the staff to proceed with an integrated rulemaking on power reactor decommissioning in response to the increasing number of power reactors entering decommissioning. Notably, since 2013, six power reactors have permanently shut down, defueled, and entered decommissioning, and 12 additional reactor units are slated to do the same.

The types of potential accidents at decommissioning reactors are substantially fewer, and the risks of radiological releases are substantially lower, relative to those at operating reactors. Certain NRC decommissioning regulations, however, do not specifically account for this important difference between shutdown and operating plants. This fact has prompted decommissioning licensees to request resource intensive regulatory exemptions and related license amendments. Accordingly, the principal purpose of the proposed rule is to increase regulatory efficiency by aligning decommissioning requirements with the reduction in radiological risk that occurs over time (such that fewer plant-specific exemptions and license amendments are necessary) while still adequately protecting public health and safety and maintaining security. The proposed rule seeks to achieve this end by adopting a “graded approach” in several areas that is commensurate with the reductions in radiological risk that occur as a plant progresses through the decommissioning process (i.e., by removing all spent fuel from the reactor vessel, allowing sufficient decay of the fuel in the spent fuel pool, transferring all fuel to dry storage, and removing all fuel from the site).

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff recently published its views on the applicability of a 1987 policy statement to the holders of combined licenses (COLs) who defer or terminate the construction of new reactor projects.

During construction of nuclear power plants licensed by the NRC, plant owners occasionally decide to either postpone or stop construction. In late 1987, the Commission issued its Policy Statement on Deferred Plants (52 Fed. Reg. 38,077) to address the procedures that apply to nuclear power plants under these circumstances, including “deferred plants,” which could reactivate construction, and “terminated plants,” which have announced that construction has been permanently stopped. The policy statement addresses topics such as maintenance, preservation, and documentation of equipment; the process for reactivating construction; and withdrawal of a construction permit.

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: