Nuclear waste: why environmentalists are pressing NRC on reactor licenses
After a US appeals court ruled the NRC had not adequately evaluated nuclear waste provisions when licensing reactors, the groups are seeking to ensure the public has input on the process.
The nation's top nuclear power plant regulator is being petitioned by environmental groups to halt all further license extensions for 35 power reactors nationwide until their on-site nuclear-waste storage systems undergo more in-depth environmental evaluation.Skip to next paragraph
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The legal petition filed Monday followed a June 8 ruling by the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had failed to adequately evaluate on-site nuclear waste storage prior to granting license extensions.
The groups want the NRC to establish procedures for ensuring that members of the public can comment on the environmental analysis and raise site-specific concerns about the environmental impacts of highly radioactive spent nuclear reactor fuel in individual licensing cases.
IN PICTURES: US nuclear power plants
The petition “is not a request to halt or suspend any licensing proceeding,” or demand a chance in how the NRC reviews reactor lilcense applications in pending reactor licensing cases. But the petition does call for the NRC to suspend any final licensing decisions until it completes the court’s mandate.
Spent nuclear fuel produced by the nation's 104 nuclear reactors has been stored for decades in pools or casks at the power plant sites. Plans to develop a permanent national repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada were cancelled in 2010.
In its ruling the court concluded that the NRC's standard finding during the relicensing process that permanent nuclear-waste storage will be available “when necessary” did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage – "a possibility that cannot be ignored."
The court also found that the NRC's finding that spent fuel could safely be stored on site at nuclear plants for 60 years after expiration of a plant’s license, "failed to properly examine future dangers and key consequences."
"The waste confidence ruling is a breath of fresh air because it is a recognition by the court that the emperor has no clothes when it comes to nuclear-waste disposal in this country," says Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear safety watchdog.
"The NRC and the industry have to come to terms with the fact that there may be no final repository for spent fuel for a very long time, if ever, and do a fair evaluation of the environmental impacts of indefinite long-term on-site storage in the context of both renewed and new reactor licenses."
Monday's legal petition by 22 environmental groups and two individuals calls for the environmental analyses ordered by the Court of Appeals to be "applied in each reactor licensing case before operation is permitted, and that they will be given a meaningful opportunity to participate in the decision-making process,” Diane Curran, an attorney representing some of the groups in the Court of Appeals case said in a statement.
In the aftermath of the ruling, nuclear energy industry officials expressed disappointment over the court ruling, but said it would mean process adjustments and should not unduly intensify NRC scrutiny or slow up relicensing efforts.