New York Wonders Where Nuclear Cleanup Funds Would Come from

Sept. 25, 2013, 4:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Who — and what pot of money — would drive cleanup after a severe nuc­le­ar-power-plant in­cid­ent is a ques­tion still left un­answered by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, New York state of­fi­cials say in a re­cent leg­al fil­ing with the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion.

Un­der the Price-An­der­son Act, which Con­gress first passed in 1957 and has re­newed sev­er­al times since, the nuc­le­ar-power in­dustry’s li­ab­il­ity in the event of a cata­strophe at one of its fa­cil­it­ies is lim­ited. The in­dustry pays in­to an in­sur­ance ac­count — which NRC of­fi­cials say has a cur­rent value of $12 bil­lion — that would be used to com­pensate the pub­lic for vari­ous dam­ages in­curred as the res­ult of an in­cid­ent. Those costs could be re­lated to hotel stays, lost wages and prop­erty re­place­ment.

However, how ac­tu­al cleanup of the con­tam­in­ated area sur­round­ing a com­prom­ised fa­cil­ity would be paid for re­mains un­clear, the New York state at­tor­ney gen­er­al’s of­fice notes in the Sept. 13 fil­ing with the com­mis­sion. In 2009, NRC of­fi­cials in­formed their coun­ter­parts at the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment and the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency that the Price-An­der­son money likely would not be avail­able to pay for off­s­ite cleanup — a rev­el­a­tion made pub­lic a year later when in­tern­al EPA doc­u­ments were re­leased un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act.

An­oth­er three years have gone by and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has yet to provide a clear an­swer, the New York AG of­fice says. Last year, NRC Com­mis­sion­er Wil­li­am Mag­wood ac­know­ledged in a present­a­tion to the Health Phys­ics So­ci­ety that “[t]here is no reg­u­lat­ory frame­work for en­vir­on­ment­al res­tor­a­tion fol­low­ing a ma­jor ra­di­olo­gic­al re­lease.”

Mag­wood’s present­a­tion touched on the fact that it is not only the is­sue of where the money would come from and which agency would take charge, but also how that fed­er­al en­tity would define “clean.” En­vir­on­ment­al­ists, along with some EPA and state of­fi­cials, have ar­gued that EPA Su­per­fund pro­tocol — un­der which a site is con­sidered clean when no more than one in 10,000 people would be ex­pec­ted to de­vel­op can­cer from ex­pos­ure to re­sid­ual con­tam­in­a­tion — should ap­ply in such a situ­ation.

NRC of­fi­cials have ar­gued the Su­per­fund law was not in­ten­ded for this pur­pose, a po­s­i­tion Mag­wood re­it­er­ated in his present­a­tion. In­dustry, mean­while, backs sug­ges­tions in a new EPA nuc­le­ar-re­sponse guide that it might not be feas­ible to clean up to Su­per­fund stand­ards.

Then-Rep­res­ent­at­ive Ed­ward Mar­key (D-Mass.), now a U.S. sen­at­or, pressed Pres­id­ent Obama on the is­sue fol­low­ing the on­set of the Fukushi­ma crisis in Ja­pan in 2011. Steven Chu, then the En­ergy sec­ret­ary, re­spon­ded on be­half of the pres­id­ent, say­ing that Su­per­fund law con­tained an ex­emp­tion for cer­tain ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als covered by the Price-An­der­son Act that could pre­vent the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency from re­spond­ing to such an in­cid­ent in its usu­al way.

“If such a re­lease were de­term­ined to con­sist of only these spe­cified ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als (i.e., no com­ming­ling with oth­er [Su­per­fund]-reg­u­lated haz­ard­ous sub­stances), than the [Su­per­fund] ex­clu­sion could lim­it EPA’s re­sponse au­thor­ity,” Chu said in a Ju­ly 2011 let­ter to Mar­key. Nor­mally, the agency can sue com­pan­ies re­spons­ible for pol­lu­tion un­der the Su­per­fund law.

While the rel­ev­ant re­quire­ments for how thor­ough a cleanup must be are ob­vi­ously a factor in de­term­in­ing how much it would cost, there con­tin­ues to be con­fu­sion over the is­sue of where funds would come from. The Illinois Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency, for in­stance, as­sumes in Sept. 13 com­ments on the new EPA re­sponse guide that “a rev­en­ue is stream is in place” to pay for cleanup and waste dis­pos­al after a nuc­le­ar-power-plant in­cid­ent — des­pite the NRC state­ments to the con­trary.

New York of­fi­cials sug­gest the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should re­solve the is­sue be­fore the com­mis­sion re­news li­censes for the In­di­an Point nuc­le­ar power plant, loc­ated just north of New York City.

Based on what has come to light so far, it is “not clear that NRC has the de­sire, cap­ab­il­ity, or fin­an­cial re­sources to re­spond to a severe ac­ci­dent at In­di­an Point and en­sure the thor­ough de­con­tam­in­a­tion of the New York met­ro­pol­it­an area in­clud­ing, but not lim­ited to, its wa­ter sources — and drink­ing wa­ter sources — in the wake of such an ac­ci­dent,” the state’s AG of­fice says.

Ac­cord­ing to the Sept. 13 fil­ing in the In­di­an Point li­cense-re­new­al pro­ceed­ings, the state — which is chal­len­ging re­new­al on sev­er­al grounds —- has asked the com­mis­sion to ad­dress the is­sue in mul­tiple for­ums in re­cent years, and has yet to re­ceive a re­sponse it con­siders sat­is­fact­ory.

In March 2012, NRC staff an­nounced it was go­ing to sup­ple­ment its pre­vi­ously is­sued re­view of the po­ten­tial en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts as­so­ci­ated with the fa­cil­ity. The state re­spon­ded by pro­pos­ing the sup­ple­ment­al re­view ad­dress how the com­mis­sion “deals with severe nuc­le­ar events that lead to sig­ni­fic­ant en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts in­clud­ing land con­tam­in­a­tion.” In do­ing so, the state cited the 2010 FOIA re­lease of the EPA doc­u­ments.

When NRC staff re­leased a draft of the sup­ple­ment in June 2012, it did not ad­dress New York’s re­quest, the state says. The state re­it­er­ated the re­quest in Au­gust 2012 com­ments on the draft, to which NRC staff re­spon­ded in June 2013:

“NRC staff stated that ‘NRC has tech­nic­al lead­er­ship for the Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to the event,’ but it also lis­ted eight oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies ‘who may re­spond to an event at an NRC-li­censed fa­cil­ity, or in­volving NRC-li­censed ma­ter­i­al,’” the state says, quot­ing the NRC re­sponse.

“Staff’s re­sponse did not ad­dress Com­mis­sion­er Mag­wood’s state­ment re­gard­ing the lack of a reg­u­lat­ory frame­work for en­vir­on­ment­al res­tor­a­tion fol­low­ing a ma­jor ra­di­olo­gic­al re­lease,” the state con­tin­ues. “Nor did Staff ex­plain which agency is re­spons­ible for de­con­tam­in­at­ing the New York met­ro­pol­it­an area fol­low­ing a severe ac­ci­dent at In­di­an Point, or which agency’s de­con­tam­in­a­tion stand­ards will ap­ply to a cleanup.”

In the new fil­ing, the state again asks the com­mis­sion to identi­fy which fed­er­al agency would be re­spons­ible for clean­ing up ra­di­ation re­leased by the In­di­an Point re­act­ors and spent-fuel pools, as well as wheth­er Price-An­der­son funds would be avail­able to sup­port such a cleanup.

“Giv­en the unique char­ac­ter­ist­ics of In­di­an Point, the State be­lieves it is es­pe­cially im­port­ant that the pub­lic have ac­cess to this in­form­a­tion,” the New York AG of­fice says, adding that more than 17 mil­lion people live with­in 50 miles of the fa­cil­ity.

“The com­munit­ies with­in the 50-mile ra­di­us around In­di­an Point also con­tain some of the most densely-de­veloped and ex­pens­ive real es­tate around the coun­try, crit­ic­al nat­ur­al re­sources, cen­ters of na­tion­al and in­ter­na­tion­al com­merce, trans­port­a­tion ar­ter­ies and hubs, and his­tor­ic sites,” the state says. “Thus, the de­con­tam­in­a­tion costs of a severe ac­ci­dent at In­di­an Point have the po­ten­tial to be lar­ger than an ac­ci­dent at any oth­er re­act­or in the coun­try.”

Asked to com­ment, NRC spokes­man Scott Bur­nell said the com­mis­sion’s gen­er­al coun­sel of­fice would re­spond dir­ectly to the New York AG of­fice “as ap­pro­pri­ate.”

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