Vermont official urges nuclear decommissioning panel to ask questions, even if they’re not answered

Last week, Kate O’Connor, chairman of the citizen’s advisory panel created when the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant was shut down gave Massachusetts’s own Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel a preview of what to expect in the next few years as Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station prepares to shut down forever.

Vermont’s NDCAP was created in 2014, shortly before Vermont Yankee was shut down in December of that year, O’Connor said. In contrast, the Massachusetts NDCAP held its first meeting in May, over two years before Pilgrim Station is scheduled to close.

When Vermont Yankee closed, Entergy announced it planned to put the plant in SAFSTOR, which would have essentially mothballed it until 2067 waiting for the buildings to become sufficiently decontaminated for them to be taken down, O’Connor said. But the company, which owns both Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim Station, scrambled those expectations by announcing it would sell the plant to Northstar, a company with plans to quickly demolish it, she said. Now, discussions about decommissioning wait for the NRC and the Vermont Public Utilities Commission decide whether to approve the sale.

O’Connor recommended that the Massachusetts NDCAP seriously consider the possibility that Entergy would do here what it did in Vermont. She said that Northstar has partnered with Areva to buy nuclear power plants that are shutting down, which suggests that the two companies don’t plan to stop at just one. In  press release announcing the venture, Areva states that it is “working with a U.S. power company to assess the decommissioning and dismantling of multiple nuclear reactor facilities scheduled for shutdown.”

One challenge the NDCAP faces, O’Connor says, is its lack of authority. Neither the one here or in Vermont has any power to make Entergy do something. That shouldn’t discourage the panel from trying though, she said. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get information.”

O’Connor cited her panel’s experience in trying to learn more about a document called the Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report as an example of the challenge the Massachusetts NDCAP will face. The PSDAR is a  lengthy document Entergy is required to submit within two years of Pilgrim Station’s closure. It describes how the company plans to decommission the plant and how much it will cost. Curiously, the PSDAR is not subject to any review. Entergy, O’Connor said, will submit it to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will then file it away. The state of Vermont submitted 300 questions about the PSDAR, O’Connor said. Entergy didn’t have to answer them, she added.

The Vermont NDCAP, and the state also, are also overmatched financially, O’Connor said. Her panel, like the one here, as limited resources and cannot hire the kind of experts a corporation like Entergy can. Instead, the panel relies on bringing in experts willing to speak for free.

“It’s hard when someone says ‘trust us.’ that’s the problem,” O’Connor said.

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