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Industry: Proposed Rulemaking on Cleanup During Operation Is ‘Wholly Inappropriate’

Aug. 7, 2013—The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has failed to provide a basis for developing a rule that would require licensees to clean up residual radioactive contamination at nuclear energy facilities during their operating life, NEI said last week.

Absent a basis, the development of such a rule would be “wholly inappropriate,” Ralph Andersen, NEI’s senior director of radiation safety and environmental protection, said in an Aug. 2 letter to the NRC.

Cleanup of residual radioactivity has drawn attention in recent years because of occasional unintentional leaks of slightly radioactive water at some nuclear energy facilities. Although state and federal officials have concluded the leaks pose no public health hazard, the industry in 2006 adopted a voluntary program to enhance groundwater monitoring at nuclear energy facilities. The NRC also revised its decommissioning planning rule to require groundwater monitoring during operations.

The NRC staff has proposed developing a rule that would explicitly require cleanup of residual radioactivity during operations. In a May 2012 memorandum, the commission directed the staff to “solicit public comments on the technical basis” for the staff proposal and to provide a report on its “pros and cons,” including a preliminary cost-benefit analysis. The NRC requested public comments this year in a June 3 Federal Register notice.

The industry expressed opposition to such a rulemaking in 2011 and has not changed its position, Andersen said, adding that he believes the NRC’s arguments are “fundamentally flawed.” One problem is that the staff has based its work on the assumption that the commission directed it to develop a rule.

“The draft technical basis largely misses the point, which is to meaningfully evaluate the need for a rulemaking,” Andersen said in the letter. “Given this fundamental flaw in the premise for this draft analysis, it cannot be used as a basis for the development of a proposed rule.”

Andersen said the draft technical basis fails to identify a specific problem requiring a regulatory solution. While the staff’s analysis claims a rule is needed to prevent nuclear energy facilities becoming “legacy” cleanup sites—at which the licensee is unable to complete decommissioning and terminates the license because of technical or financial limitations—no nuclear power plant has ever become a legacy site, nor are any current sites at risk of becoming one. Andersen said this conclusion would be supported if the agency looked at industry experience since decommissioning financial assurance requirements were put in place in 1988.

Given the lack of a basis for the rule and absent any meaningful cost-benefit consideration, Andersen said, “the development of a proposed rule is unjustified and would be inconsistent with recent efforts to ensure that cumulative effects of regulation are appropriately managed.”