NRC to issue guidance on the early use of decommissioning trust funds

April 17, 2023, 9:30AMRadwaste Solutions

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it is considering new guidance on the use of decommissioning trust funds for the disposal of major radioactive components from still operating nuclear power plants. A draft guidance document is to be issued for public comment in late May, NRC staff said during a public online meeting on April 13.

The new guidance stems from a 2019 rulemaking petition to the NRC, which argued that allowing such use of decommissioning funds would remove an unnecessary burden from plant licensees that store major radioactive components on their sites during operations. In 2021, the NRC denied the petition, responding that withdrawals from decommissioning trust funds prior to plant closure should only be allowed under “extraordinary circumstances.”

The NRC also maintains that, under current rules, there are other avenues for plant licensees to access decommissioning trust funds prior to closing, such as through the establishment of subaccounts within the trust, which are not regulated by the NRC, and through site-specific exemptions. The new guidance is intended to help NRC staff in the review of such exemption requests.

What they’re asking: During the public comment period on the draft guidance, the NRC will be encouraging public comments and recommendations on what factors might help agency staff in its review of an exemption request for the use of decommissioning trust funds for the disposal of major components during plant operations, said Shawn Harwell, NRC staff financial analyst.

“We review each exemption request based on the merits of the facts provided in the request,” Harwell said. “And we will consider site-specific factors of the facility and the unique financial status of each licensee in reviewing these requests.”

Harwell added that the guidance is not intended to direct licensees on what to include in an exemption request or how to present it. “This is simply what we may look for, what would build an appropriate story for us to understand the extraordinary circumstances that could lead to the allowance of a withdrawal [from the decommissioning trust fund],” he said.

Benefits vs. costs: During questions from meeting participants, Larry Camper, a nuclear consultant and former NRC staff member, asked if the NRC would consider including guidance on conducting a cost-benefit analysis on the early disposal of major radioactive components, given that disposal costs are likely to increase in the future.

“The fundamental issue with the [major radioactive components] is you dispose of them now or you dispose of them later,” Camper said. “It is only a question of when you spend the money and what is going to be the most cost-effective way to do it.”

Harwell said the NRC is thinking about how waste disposal prior to closure can affect the financial health of trust funds, adding that such an analysis is something they would like to see included in the public comments on the draft guidance.

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