Failure to Fund National Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository Leaves Decommissioning Funds Partially Unsupervised

Nov 07, 2018

Nearly four decades ago, the federal government charged the Department of Energy with finding a long-term solution for housing spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants as well as U.S. Navy reactors. In 2002, Yucca Mountain in Nevada was selected as the repository site. In 2010, the DOE unceremoniously rejected its own plans for a federal repository.

As a result, the only option for U.S. nuclear power plants is to store spent fuel from the reactor vessels onsite. That includes decommissioned or decommissioning power plants, like the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station. Just last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an exemption request from Exelon Generation, which owns the Lacey Township-based nuclear plant, to withdrawal monies from the plant’s decommissioning trust fund for spent fuel management and site restorations costs without first obtaining NRC approval.

“We approved these changes after reviewing the fund and projected cash flow,” said Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the NRC’s Region 1 office, noting the federal agency has approved similar requests before.

Oyster Creek, once the nation’s oldest operating commercial nuclear power plant, was taken permanently offline in September. It was licensed to operate until April 2029, but under an agreement with the state of New Jersey to forgo building cooling towers, company officials agreed to close the plant by Dec. 31, 2019. Earlier this year, citing financial costs and better opportunities for employees, the decision was made to shut down plant operations in September.

In July, Exelon Generation announced it had reached a deal with Holtec International, a New Jersey-based energy technology company, to purchase the plant and take over its decommissioning duties.

“An important note is that this exemption was based on Exelon’s earlier plan to place the plant into SAFSTOR, or long-term storage, before dismantlement work begins,” Sheehan said. “Holtec will need to submit an exemption request for the same uses of the fund based on its proposed DECON, or immediate dismantlement, approach. We anticipate receiving that request in November.”

The timeline for the NRC to review Holtec’s request to use decommissioning trust funds would be similar to what it was for Exelon’s request, which was submitted on March 22, 2018, and approved on Oct. 19, 2018, according to Sheehan.

“Holtec would not be able to withdraw any money until the NRC determines if it qualifies to take over the Oyster Creek license,” he said. “If it gets the go-ahead, Holtec would be free to begin withdrawals if and when it receives approval for the exemption.”

On Aug. 31, Exelon and Holtec filed a joint application to begin the license transfer application, asking for a decision by May 1, 2019. The public has until Nov. 8 to file a request for a public hearing on the federal agency’s review of the transfer. Written comments are being accepted until Nov. 19.

From the beginning, Holtec officials have said they would like to immediately begin decommissioning Oyster Creek. It’s their intention to expedite the dismantling of the nuclear plant and return the site, located on 779 acres of land in the Forked River section of the township, to unrestricted use in less than a decade, with the exclusion of the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation, or spent fuel pad, on site. Exelon’s post-shutdown activity plans included taking the full 60 years permitted under federal law.

“We do track how decommissioning funds are used and where they stand,” Sheehan said. “The owners of permanently shut-down nuclear power plants must submit updates to us on an annual basis.”

While the NRC is currently reviewing applications for two potential interim sites to house spent nuclear fuel, one in Texas and the other in New Mexico, the House of Representatives earlier this year voted to revive the Yucca Mountain project to store radioactive nuclear waste.

“Electricity consumers have contributed $40 billion into the nuclear waste fund,” according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy organization for nuclear technologies. “Meanwhile, taxpayers have been saddled with more than $6 billion in damages for the federal government’s inaction – an amount that grows by $800 million for every additional year the government does not act. The cost of not funding a solution is rapidly becoming greater than the cost of funding it.”

— Gina G. Scala

ggscala@thesandpaper.net

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.