Closed Kewaunee plant seeks safety exemptions

The shuttered Kewaunee Power Station nuclear plant is seen, May 9, 2014. (WLUK/Laura Smith)

CARLTON - The Kewaunee nuclear plant went dark one year ago.

Now the owner, Dominion Resources, Inc., wants exemptions from some federal safety rules at the power station.

That is drawing criticism from some lawmakers.

Dominion says the threat of an emergency isn't as great now that the plant is being decommissioned.

Local affairs manager Mark Kanz says the company's request for exemptions are specific to rules regarding evacuation zones and siren alerts.

"As of this fall, the only accidents that could occur would be in and around the spent fuel pool and those accidents would be relegated to anything that would happen and just affect the site," said Kanz.

Kanz says the current regulations no longer apply at the plant.

He adds a Dominion analysis found that after 17 months of treatment, spent nuclear fuel has limited impact onsite and no impact offsite.

"Which means it would have absolutely no impact to the health and safety of the public," said Kanz.

Kanz says that's why it doesn't make a lot of sense for Dominion or local officials to be required to prepare for emergencies that could no longer happen.

"What we're asking to do is bring that number of people required to respond to an emergency down, commensurate with the amount of risk that's involved here at the station," Kanz said.

The reactor was defueled shortly after the plant closed in 2013.

Dominion plans to place the spent fuel rods in dry storage by 2016.

The company filed paperwork with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission over the last several months. Approval can take up to a year.

"We review their request to ultimately make a decision and if the change would go ahead and continue to ensure the public, the environment of the workers who are there are safe," said U.S. NRC spokesperson Prema Chandrathil.

Three other nuclear plants, in California, Florida and Vermont, are also seeking safety exemptions from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But five senators, four Democrats and a left-leaning Independent, say the exemption requests should be denied.

The senators, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernard Sanders and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, argue that the safety rules are in place for a reason.

In a letter to the regulatory commission, the senators wrote: "The National Academy of Sciences and the NRC have both found that draining of a spent nuclear fuel pool can lead to fires, large radioactive releases, and widespread contamination."

Kewaunee's future remains unclear.

However, the NRC has approved safety exemptions at other reactors being decommissioned.

Those decisions are made on a case by case basis.

I reached out to Wisconsin senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin for comment on this story. Neither lawmaker returned my calls.

As for the plant, Kanz says on-site security will remain at the facility as long as fuel is still being stored there.