Aging and dangerous nuclear power plants are closing. This should be cause for celebration. We will all be safer now, right? Well, not exactly. US nuclear power plant owners are currently pouring resources into efforts to circumvent the already virtually non-existent regulations for the dismantlement and decommissioning of permanently closed nuclear reactors. And sad to say, many on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the industry’s ever compliant lapdog, are trotting happily by their side. There is an occasional lone critic. NRC Commissioner Jeff Baran, observed that the “NRC does not currently have regulations specifically tailored for this transition from operations to decommissioning. As a result, licensees with reactors transitioning to decommissioning routinely seek exemptions from many of the regulations applicable to operating reactors.” The inevitable result is that reactor owners will successfully avoid spending money now on decommissioning as they seek to delay beginning the actual cleanup work for the next half century and maybe longer. Later, when it comes time to finish the job, the owners – and the money – could well be long gone. US reactor owners rely on ‘decommissioning trust fund’ investments to pay for decommissioning activities. But these are failing to accrue adequate funds to do the job. Many of the trusts are incurring annual losses on their investments. In fact, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found the NRC’s financing formula for decommissioning trust funds to be fundamentally flawed, resulting in the utilities ability to accrue only 57% to 75% of the needed funds. True costs of nuclear-generated electricity hidden for decades Using Vermont Yankee (a relatively small 620 MWe reactor) as an example, the decommissioning cost estimate in 2015 was $1.2 billion and rising. At the same time, Entergy, the plant’s owner, had just $625 million on hand. In early May, Entergy was reprimanded (but not fined) by the NRC for violating “federal regulations last year when it prematurely took money out of the Vermont Yankee decommissioning trust fund to cover planning expenses associated with the handling of spent nuclear fuel at the closed reactor”, the Times Argus reported. Another factor in the current struggle to pay for decommissioning is rooted in a decades-long practice by utilities of omitting the costs of decommissioning from electricity bills in order to artificially lower rates and stay competitive in the market. Rather than preserve decommissioning trust funds for actual decommissioning work, utilities are now asking the NRC to let them raid the funds for activities outside the parameters of the reactor decommissioning process. These activities include the payment of taxes and the protracted management of orphaned nuclear waste left on site. In addition, while at the same time delaying the start of decommissioning, the utilities have requested and received exemptions from the NRC that allow them to eliminate radiological emergency planning and drastically reduce on-site security around hundreds of tons high-level nuclear waste, all in the name of saving money. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission appears to be complicit in this process and is in fact providing a significant hidden subsidy to the nuclear industry when it looks the other way by allowing public trust funds to be raided in violation of the Code of Federal Regulations”, writes Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates in a document submitted to the NRC. Gundersen, along with other groups including my own – Beyond Nuclear – have filed comments to the NRC as part of an arcane and convoluted process known as an ‘Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Decommissioning.’ The public comment period closed on March 18, 2016. A years long Rulemaking is underway because reactor owners are asking to streamline what were site-specific exemptions and have them issued generically instead, and across the board, without any opportunity for public review or comment. This essentially eliminates public transparency in the decommissioning process. It further seeks to save the corporation from spending any of its electricity production profits on the costs of safety and security oversight the companies claim are no longer needed once the reactor stops power production and is defueled. The options for decommissioning a nuclear plant There are currently three decommissioning options when a reactor closes. They are known by apparent acronyms that are really just capitalized slogans, masking the flaws behind all three. DECON refers to prompt dismantlement. This sounds promising for all sides, dispensing with the whole decommissioning process and its attendant costs, headaches and liabilities in about 10 years. In principle DECON is supported by environmental and anti-nuclear groups, but with one giant caveat: the radioactive waste that remains on site after decommissioning of the reactor, must be adequately safeguarded. Under the current regulatory scheme, the NRC allows the licensee to offload the irradiated nuclear fuel from the spent fuel storage pools into dry storage casks. These are not adequately protected from security threats. Nor is there any contingency to re-contain nuclear waste should it begin leaking from one of these casks. Current casks designs are qualified for on-site nuclear waste storage for only 20 years and re-certified for four additional cycles. Some of these cask designs have already experienced degradation of protective seals and concrete shielding after less than a decade of use. Of greatest concern, the casks are situated outside, closely congregated, on open tarmacs raising security concerns for their vulnerability to attack. Consequently, the anti-nuclear and environmental groups that support DECON insist on the implementation of enhanced security called ‘Hardened On-Site Storage’, or HOSS to minimize these risks.