- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing to issue new rules covering the decommissioning of nuclear power reactors, saying that it expects to release them for public comment next year.
- The new rules would cover areas of emergency preparedness, physical security, cyber security, drug and alcohol testing, training requirements for certified fuel handlers, the use of decommissioning trust funds and other areas.
- The new rules would come as increasing numbers of plants are under financial pressure from cheaper gas-fired generation and a new wave of grid-edge resources coming online. A recent report found nuclear decommissioning trust funds are growing, but are still more than $40 billion short of the sector's expected cost.
The U.S. nuclear industry is expected to face additional plant closures as energy demand stagnates, financial pressures increase and fixed operating costs remain high. A half dozen reactors have closed since 2013, and several more plants, including Entergy’s Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and Exelon’s Oyster Creek in New Jersey and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, are slated to close in 2019.
Decommissioning trust funds are among one area where NRC would target the new rules. Earlier this year, a report from investment consulting firm Callan LLC concluded that the funds' balances totaled $64 billion at the end of 2016 — a 6% increase from the previous year’s total, but still $41.8 billion short of total estimated decommissioning expenses for the sector. The study covered 27 investor-owned utilities and 27 public power utilities.There are currently 99 operating nuclear reactors and 11 non-operating reactors.
In a "regulatory basis" to support a rulemaking, published this month, NRC said it would likely issue the new rules for public comment next year.
Rules would cover a range of issues, including training requirements for certified fuel handlers, the decommissioning trust funds, offsite and onsite financial protection requirements and indemnity agreements as well as the application of the backfit rule, which allows new or revised requirements to be issued to licensees of nuclear power reactor facilities.
Also in the regulatory basis, the NRC staff said it recommends "guidance development and inspection procedure updates for minimum staffing of non-licensed operators and aging management of certain [structures, systems, and components]." Staff also determined that fatigue management would not be addressed in the new decommissioning rules.
The cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors is a major issue facing the industry. A 2012 draft report by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, completed for the NRC, examined four decommissioned plants: Rancho Seco, Maine Yankee, Trojan and Haddam Neck. The report compared original estimates against actual costs and found shortfalls in estimates for project management, decontamination and removal, insurance and regulatory costs ranging from 100% to 250%.