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The dangerous business of dismantling America’s aging nuclear plants

The NRC has given Holtec permission to pare back safety and security requirements at its plants, including security personnel, cybersecurity, emergency planning, terrorist attack drills and accident insurance, according to documents on the agency’s website.

“The NRC has not figured out a permanent solution” to nuclear waste………. “They are using Holtec as a Band-Aid.”

  Accidents at New Jersey’s Oyster Creek power plant have spurred calls for stricter oversight of the burgeoning nuclear decommissioning industry  Washington Post, By Douglas MacMillan  PORKED RIVER, N.J. — The new owner took over the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in 2019, promising to dismantle one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants at minimal cost and in record time. Then came a series of worrisome accidents.

The new owner took over the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in 2019, promising to dismantle one of the nation’s oldest nuclear plants at minimal cost and in record time. Then came a series of worrisome accidents.

One worker was struck by a 100-ton metal reactor dome. Another was splashed with radioactive water, according to internal incident reports and regulatory inspection reports reviewed by The Washington Post. Another worker drove an excavator into an electrical wire on his first day on the job, knocking out power to 31,000 homes and businesses on the New Jersey coast, according to a police report and the local power company.

All three incidents occurred on the watch of Holtec International, a nuclear equipment manufacturer based in Jupiter, Fla. Though the company until recently had little experience shutting down nuclear plants, Holtec has emerged as a leader in nuclear cleanup, a burgeoning field riding an expected wave of closures as licenses expire for the nation’s aging nuclear fleet.

Over the past three years, Holtec has purchased three plants in three states and expects to finalize a fourth this summer.  The company is seeking to profitably dismantle them by replacing hundreds of veteran plant workers with smaller, less-costly crews of contractors and eliminating emergency planning measures, documents and interviews show. While no one has been seriously injured at Oyster Creek, the missteps are spurring calls for stronger government oversight of the entire cleanup industry.

In the nearly three years Holtec has owned Oyster Creek, regulators have documented at least nine violations of federal rules, including the contaminated water mishap, falsified weapons inspection reports and other unspecified security lapses. That’s at least as many as were found over the preceding 10 years at the plant, when it was owned by Exelon, one of the nation’s largest utility companies, according to The Post’s review of regulatory records.,…………………

Holtec is pioneering an experimental new business model. During the lifetime of America’s 133 nuclear reactors, ratepayers paid small fees on their monthly energy bills to fill decommissioning trust funds, intended to cover the eventual cost of deconstructing the plants. Trust funds for the country’s 94 operating and 14 nonoperating nuclear reactors now total about $86 billion, according to Callan, a San Francisco-based investment consulting firm.

After a reactor is dismantled and its site cleared, some of these trust funds must return any money left over to ratepayers. But others permit cleanup companies to keep any surplus as profit — creating incentives to cut costs at sites that house some of the most dangerous materials on the planet.

Even after reactors are shut down, long metal rods containing radioactive pellets — known as spent fuel — are stored steps away, in cooling pools and steel-and-concrete casks. Nuclear safety experts say that an industrial accident or a terrorist attack at any of these sites could result in a radiological release with severe impacts to workers and nearby residents, as well as to the environment.

(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent federal agency tasked with overseeing safety at nuclear sites, conducts regular inspections during the decommissioning process. But state and local officials say the NRC has failed to safeguard the public from risks at shut-down plants, deferring too readily to companies like Holtec.

“The NRC is not doing their job,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has pushed the agency to adopt stricter regulations around plant decommissioning. “We need a guaranteed system that prioritizes communities and safety, and we don’t have that right now.”

The NRC’s leadership is divided over the role regulators should play. The agency was created in 1974, as the first generation of commercial reactors was going online, and its rules were mainly designed to safeguard the operation of active plants and nuclear-material sites. As reactors shut down, the NRC began reducing inspections and exempting plants from safety and security rules.

Last November, the NRC approved a new rule that would automatically qualify shut-down plants for looser safety and security restrictions.

Christopher T. Hanson, a Democrat nominated by President Donald Trump and promoted to the role of chairman by President Biden, has said the changes would improve the “effectiveness and efficiency” of the decommissioning process.

Commissioner Jeff Baran, also a Democrat, voted against the proposed rule and called for the NRC and local governments to play a bigger role. “Radiological risks remain at shutdown nuclear plants that must be taken seriously,” he cautioned in public comments. Baran added that the agency already takes a “laissez-faire” approach to decommissioning and that the new rule “would make the situation even worse, further skewing the regulation towards the interests of industry.”…………

Holtec faces mounting criticism beyond Oyster Creek. Michigan officials have said they worry Holtec will leave residents on the hook for cleanup costs at the Palisades plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. Massachusetts officials have protested Holtec’s plan to take 1 million gallons of contaminated water from the defunct Pilgrim power plant and dump it into Cape Cod Bay…………….

In the Southwest, Holtec has ignited a different controversy. As the company acquires old plants, it is proposing to ship the highly radioactive spent fuel to New Mexico, where it plans to build a storage facility.Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has vowed to fight the plan, telling Trump in a 2020 letter that storing radioactive material in the oil-rich Permian Basin region would be “economic malpractice.”………………………………..

Founded and wholly owned by Kris Singh, an inventor and entrepreneur, Holtec says it is pioneering a new model of “accelerated decommissioning.” At the 24 U.S. reactors currently undergoing decommissioning, over half are expected to take two decades or more to complete the process, NRC data shows; Holtec pledges to return nuclear sites to safe, clean usable land in as few as eight years.

Singh did not respond to requests for comment, and Holtec did not make him available for an interview.

The company’s work at Oyster Creek, its first plant, was meant to be a blueprint for the national expansion, Holtec executives said in interviews with The Post in early 2020. Instead, safety advocates argue, it has served as a warning. Cost-cutting has left employees feeling overworked and prone to mistakes, according to two former plant workers who were both laid off by Holtec. They spoke on the condition of anonymityto discuss their former employer.

The company has said in regulatory filings it plans to keep about $85 million in profit from Oyster Creek’s $826 million trust fund. It has already spent about one quarter of the fund.

Shortly after Holtec took over, regulators found problems with the plant’s weapons program. All nuclear plants must maintain weapons, such as guns and ammunition used by security personnel,and test them on a regular basis to secure the sites from attacks. According to an NRC investigation, a Holtec manager skipped the annual tests and falsified the weapons inspection reports to give the appearance the tests were conducted. ……………………………………………………………..

A ‘gamble’

Decommissioning is an unproven business with uncertain profits. The total saved in the nation’s decommissioning trust funds is currently smaller than the estimated cost of shutting them all down, according to Callan’s Moriarty……………..

Some of the firms buying defunct nuclear power plants in the United States are backed by private equity, an industry with expertise in purchasing unwanted assets and improving their value, often by reducing costs. ……..

The cost of shutting down nuclear reactors

By paying small fees on monthly energy bills, Americans have saved billions of dollars to decommission nuclear reactors. Some reactors still have less money in their trust funds than their projected shut-down costs………………………………….

The NRC has given Holtec permission to pare back safety and security requirements at its plants, including security personnel, cybersecurity, emergency planning, terrorist attack drills and accident insurance, according to documents on the agency’s website. ………………………….

Some nuclear safety advocates say the NRC is being too deferential to Holtec and other companies. Years of research by the NRC itself shows plants are still vulnerable to a disaster after they shut down. In staff reports, the NRC has said severe accidents can result from mishandling spent fuel rods and that sites storing nuclear waste remain vulnerable to sabotage.

A test case

When Holtec announced its deal to acquire Oyster Creek, some local residents were uneasy about the plant becoming a test case for Holtec’s corporate expansion, said Janet Tauro, an environmental activist who lives 20 minutes north of the plant………………

With the NRC’s blessing, Holtec shrank the plant’s emergency response staff, documents show. The plant lowered its on-site insurance from $50 million to $10 million and stopped providing funds to the surrounding community for emergency equipment, staff and training, because, the company said, hazards at the site had been reduced…………………………

The future of waste

In an empty cow pasture in the New Mexico desert, Holtec is attempting to write the next chapter of the American nuclear story. The company is in the final stages of getting NRC approval for an “interim” waste storage site designed to securespent fuel from around the country in a shopping-mall-size bunker for up to 40 years.

In meetings with New Mexicans, Holtec representatives have said the facility would create jobs and fulfill an important national need. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas (D) has sued the NRC, claiming the regulator “colluded with Holtec” by rubber-stamping its plans and ignoring potential environmental harms.

“The NRC has not figured out a permanent solution” to nuclear waste, Balderas said in an interview. “They are using Holtec as a Band-Aid.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/05/13/holtec-oyster-creek-nuclear-plant-cleanup/

May 14, 2022 - Posted by | business and costs, decommission reactor, USA

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