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The Yankee Rowe Decommissioning Story

Precedents, Lessons, and Warnings for Workers and Communities

After thirty years of operation, the oldest commercial nuclear reactor shut down in 1992 due to local organizing efforts concerning age-related problems. When Yankee Rowe ceased operation, the company announced its intention to remain in SAFSTOR (long-term, on-site storage designed to reduce radioactivity of most waste by a factor of ten) while developing a decommissioning plan. However in 1993, the NRC allowed Yankee Atomic to dismantle the reactor. This included shipping highly irradiated parts to a radioactive waste dump in South Carolina. Prior to 1993, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules required submission and approval of a decommissioning plan before major dismantlement could begin. This process required a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, including preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

In 1993 NRC changed its rule to permit the corporation to strip and ship the reactor before the approval of the plan. In fact, over 95% of the radionuclide inventory was removed without an approved plan. NRC denied CAN's requests for a hearing on problems created by Yankee's rapid dismantlement. Besides our community's concerns about our health and safety, a dangerous and undemocratic precedent was being set. A slow and thorough decommissioning minimizes worker and public exposures, dramatically reduces burial waste, is more cost effective and continues to employ the skilled workforce in cleanup actives for a decade.

Over 140,000 curies were removed from Rowe and shipped off-site; much of it transported down the Eastern seaboard and buried in Barnwell, South Carolina. If this waste had remained on-site for thirty years, curie count would have decreased to 14,000 curies minimizing exposure, burial contamination and costs.

A Meltdown in Democracy

Having repeatedly requested hearings on Rowe's decommissioning over a three year period, CAN took NRC to court to address the violation of our due process rights and stop the stripping of the reactor. The District court was forced to send the case to the Appellate Court. However, Federal District Court Judge Ponser stated "The Court makes this decision with a heavy heart... This course of conduct [by NRC] suggests a concerted bureaucratic effort to thwart the efforts of local citizens to be heard about an event that vitally effects them and their children. It calls to mind the activities of Charles Dickens' fictional Office of Circumlocution in Bleak House. The prospect that this tactic may be used nationally, as more nuclear plants shut down, and more local citizen's groups express concern about the impact of the process on their lives, is, to put it mildly, disquieting."

After two years of litigation the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a hearing on the issues raised in decommissioning Yankee Rowe was necessary. The court found NRC "arbitrary, capricious, and utterly irrational" in its approval of decommissioning of Rowe. Yankee's decommissioning was scathingly rejected. The justices found NRC actions irresponsible. "An agency can not skirt NEPA or other statutory commands by exempting a licensee from compulsory compliance, and then simply labeling its decision "mere oversight" rather than a major federal action."

The Court objected: "As this construct would eviscerate the very procedural protections Congress envisioned in its enactment of section 189a [Atomic Energy Act] we decline to permit the commission to do by indirection what it is prohibited from doing directly." NRC violated the Atomic Energy Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Administrative Procedures Act. In fall 1995 NRC offered CAN an "opportunity for a hearing".

CAN advanced "contentions" demonstrating the inadequacy of Yankee's plan. Throughout the hearing process, NRC resisted our participation. The NRC Licensing Board, NRC's adjudicatory arm, rejected our contentions although they ruled that we had the right to represent worker and public concerns. This arbitrary rejection followed a course of conduct by NRC to eliminate meaningful public participation. CAN again appealed.

Piercing the Corporate Veil

During this time CAN uncovered discrepancies in the utility's records concerning worker exposures. We submitted information to the Commission. The Commission ruled that our contention on excessive worker exposure had merit and ordered the Licensing Board to review it again. A second pre-hearing was held in Washington, DC.

The Licensing Board accepted our contention and set a precedent by (1) giving CAN standing to represent the workers' health and safety interests, (2) allowing CAN to question the dose estimates of a corporation and decommissioning choices based on those estimates, and (3) allowing access to corporate documents.

During discovery, we uncovered evidence of excessive worker exposures. CAN obtained information that challenged Yankee dose estimates and procedures for calculating "decommissioning doses" for the workers and the public. Even though CAN raised questions about the corporation's procedures which hid the actual doses to the workers and the public, once again NRC denied our hearing rights.

The Future: Dirty, Cheap, Illegal

Dangerous and irresponsible precedents for decommissioning and rad waste disposal were established by NRC's actions. NRC codified the Rowe experience (in direct opposition to the Appellate Court) in a new decommissioning rule, which essentially deregulates decommissioning and minimizes NRC oversight.

Strip and Ship for New England Nukes

In December of 1996, the CT Yankee reactor in Haddam permanently shut down, as did the Maine Yankee reactor. These utilities organized rapid dismantlements. Decommissioning had significant health and safety implications for these communities and reactor workers. Since these were the first large-scale commercial reactors to decommission under the new rule, NRC nullified our court victory by promulgating regulations that bar citizens from questioning a licensee's choice of decommissioning alternatives at an adjudicatory hearing.

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