Following a petition filed by 24 environmental groups on June 18 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) suspended, yesterday, decisions on at least 19 nuclear reactor licensing decisions. The halt affects nine construction & operating licenses (COLS), eight license renewals, one operating license, and one early site permit. The decision came in response to the landmark Waste Confidence Rule decision of June 8(th) by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
The June 18th petition urged the NRC to respond to the court ruling by freezing final licensing decisions until completing a rule-making action on the environmental impacts of highly radioactive nuclear waste. On June 8, the Court threw out an NRC rule permitting licensing and re-licensing of nuclear reactors based on the supposition that (a) the NRC will find a way to dispose of spent reactor fuel to be generated by reactors at some time in the future when it becomes “necessary” and (b) in the mean time, spent fuel can be stored safely at reactor sites. One thing last years nuclear disaster in Japan demonstrated is that spent fuel stored at reactor sites is very dangerous.
The court noted that decades of failure to develop a nuclear waste repository, including the now-abandoned project at Yucca Mountain, meant the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.” Therefore no alternative currently exists but to store spent nuclear fuel on site, despite the huge risk of doing so.
The court rejected the NRC’s contention of minimal risks of of leaks or fires from spent fuel stored in reactor pools, because the NRC has not demonstrated future impacts would be insignificant. Again, last years nuclear disaster in Japan demonstrated the impact of storing spent fuel inside the reactor can be catastrophic. The court found that past experience with pool leaks was not a good prediction of the future, and that the NRC had not shown that catastrophic fires in spent fuel pools were so unlikely that their risks could be ignored.
What the NRC has done is suspended making a decision, not put a halt to licensing. Licensing reviews and proceedings will continue to move forward, the NRC said. The NRC staff is expected to provide options to the commission on waste disposal methods.
The groups hailed the NRC action saying that most of the U.S. reactor projects were already essentially sidetracked by the huge problems facing the nuclear industry, including runaway costs and the fact that other energy alternatives are less expensive.
Diane Curran, an attorney representing some of the groups in the Court of Appeals case, said: “This Commission decision halts all final licensing decisions — but not the licensing proceedings themselves — until NRC completes a thorough study of the environmental impacts of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road. When the Federal Appeals Court ordered NRC to stop and consider the impacts of generating spent nuclear fuel for which it has found no safe means of disposal, the agency could choose to appeal the decision by August 22nd or choose to do the serious work of analyzing the environmental impacts over the next few years. With today’s Commission decision, we are hopeful that the agency will undertake the serious work.”
Lou Zeller, executive director of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, another petitioner to the Court, said: said: “It appears that the Commissioners have, at least initially, grasped the magnitude of the Court’s ruling and we are optimistic that it will set up a fundamentally transparent, fair process under the National Environmental Policy Act to examine the serious environmental impacts of spent nuclear fuel storage and disposal prior to licensing or relicensing nuclear reactors.”
Former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford said: “It is important to recognize that the reactors awaiting construction licenses weren’t going to be built anytime soon even without the Court decision or today’s NRC action. Falling demand, cheaper alternatives and runaway nuclear costs had doomed their near term prospects well before the recent Court decision. Important though the Court decision is in modifying the NRC’s historic push-the-power-plants-but-postpone-the-problems approach to generic safety and environmental issues, it cannot be blamed for ongoing descent into fiasco of the bubble once known as ‘the nuclear renaissance’.”
The 24 petitioning groups include: Beyond Nuclear, Inc., Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Inc., Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Inc., Citizens Environmental Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, Inc., Citizens for Alternatives to Chemical Contamination, Don’t Waste Michigan, Inc., Ecology Party of Florida, Eric Epstein, Friends of the Earth, Inc., Friends of the Coast, Inc., Green Party of Ohio, Dan Kipnis, National Parks Conservation Association, Inc., Mark Oncavage, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Inc., New England Coalition, Inc., North Carolina Waste Reduction and Awareness Network, Inc., Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Inc., Public Citizen, Inc., San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, Inc., Sierra Club, Inc., Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Inc., Southern Maryland CARES, Inc., and Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (“SEED”) Coalition, Inc.
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