New York Wonders Where Nuclear Cleanup Funds Would Come From

Protestor Marilyn Elie is escorted off the grounds of the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y.,  in 2011.

Protestor Marilyn Elie is escorted off the grounds of the Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y., in 2011. Seth Wenig/AP file photo

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.”