Business as Usual for Nuclear Oversight Agency Amid Government Shutdown

Jan 09, 2019

The partial federal government shutdown, now in its third week, doesn’t impact the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which continues to review and approve exemption requests for the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

“We received our funding for 2019 in fall 2018,” Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the NRC Region 1 office, said earlier this week. “As such, all of our reviews and oversight activities are continuing as usual.”

No decision, he said, has been made on public hearing requests for the license transfer application jointly submitted by Exelon Generation, which owns and operated the Lacey Township-based nuclear plant, and Holtec International, the New Jersey-based company interested in acquiring it. A public comment period on the license transfer application closes Jan. 9.

Prior to the Dec. 22, 2018, federal government shutdown, the NRC completed its review of Exelon Generation’s Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report for Oyster Creek, determining it meets the commission’s regulatory requirements.

“Since the PSDAR only provides information and is not a federal action, the NRC does not have to approve it,” Sheehan said. “However, as with any report made to the NRC, we review it to determine if it meets our regulatory requirements. We only accept it if the submittal meets the criteria the NRC has established in regulatory guidance documents.”

A PSDAR lays out a general overview of a company’s decommissioning plans, he said, noting it also provides the NRC staff with a list of expected activities that guides the agency’s oversight.

“Estimated costs for decommissioning are also included in the report and an affirmation that the decommissioning can be completed consistent with the site’s environmental statement,” Sheehan said.

One of the areas the NRC covered in its acceptance review was public comments submitted regarding the report, including those made at a public meeting held in Lacey Township, the host community, on July 17, 2018, he said.

Just two weeks after that meeting, Exelon announced its intention to sell the facility to Holtec, a Camden-based company specializing in spent fuel management technologies. The two companies are asking for a decision on the license transfer application by May 1. From the get-go, Holtec officials have said they would begin as soon as possible to decommission Oyster Creek, which was permanently taken offline last year on Sept. 17 after nearly five decades of producing carbon-free electricity at the Route 9 site.

“We are currently reviewing the license transfer application,” Sheehan said, noting the New Jersey company submitted its own PSDAR for Oyster Creek. “We are, for now, treating that as a supplement to the license transfer application. If the license transfer is approved, we would then review the Holtec PSDAR. For now, Exelon is the license-holder of record for the plant.”

Holtec’s PSDAR calls for the immediate and expedited dismantling of the plant and return of the site, located on 779 acres of land, to unrestricted use, with the exclusion of the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, or spent fuel pad, on site in less than a decade. Exelon’s post-shutdown activity plans included taking the full 60 years permitted under federal law.

Should the license transfer be granted, Holtec would benefit from the NRC’s approval in reducing the amount of off-site and on-site insurance it must maintain for Oyster Creek, Sheehan said. The NRC approved Exelon’s request on Dec. 19 and would become effective 12 months from the permanent cessation of operations notification to the federal agency, he said.

“In the case of off-site liability insurance, the reduction will be from $450 million to $100 million. The company will also be able to withdraw from participation in a secondary layer of financial protection,” Sheehan said. “With respect to on-site insurance, Exelon will be permitted to reduce the amount of property damage coverage from $1.06 billion to $50 million.”

The decision, according to Sheehan, is based off a significant reduction in risk of an accident at the plant following its permanent shutdown, he said.

“As we note in the off-site insurance exemption, ‘The NRC staff has conducted an evaluation and concluded that, aside from the handling, storage and transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials for a permanently shut down and defueled reactor, no reasonably conceivable potential accident exists that could cause significant off-site damage,’” according to Sheehan.

He said it’s common for owners of closed nuclear power plants to seek a trimming in their insurance levels.

“That is consistent with the reduced safety risk posed by a nuclear power plant no longer in operation,” Sheehan said.

— Gina G. Scala

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