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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.

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"I wouldn't say so," says Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group in Washington. "The court recognized the authority the NRC has to deal with the issue [of nuclear waste] on a generic basis and it’s just a matter of how it goes about doing that.... I don't see a trend [for greater scrutiny in relicensing.] I see one event which is a court ruling."

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Separately, but also adding to the heightened public focus on nuclear power oversight, the environmental group Friends of the Earth (FOE) on Monday filed a legal petition to require the NRC to keep the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station reactors shut down until Southern California Edison obtains an operating license amendment.

The San Onofre nuclear plant just north of San Diego has been shuttered since a leak was detected in the plant's Unit 3 in January. The petition followed a public hearing Monday in which some 300 San Diego-area residents listened as NRC officials explained that two new generators refitted to the plant's reactors had seen excessive wear and an unprecedented rate of generator tube failures in recent pressure stress tests.

Eight tubes failed stress tests, with excessive wear found on another 326 tubes in Unit 3 – and two tubes in Unit 2. Each generator has more than 19,000 tubes. But it was the first time in industry history that more than one tube at the same plant failed such a pressure check, Energy and Environment Daily reported.

Installed as replacements in 2009 and 2010 at a cost of $670 million, the generators were supposed to last 40 years. As it turned out, tubes in both units were wearing out far more quickly than expected, the NRC and Edison discovered.

“The strength of eight tubes was not adequate, and structural integrity might not be maintained during an accident," Greg Werner, an NRC branch chief told a public meeting filled with neighbors of the plant, according to the Energy and Environment Daily account. "This is a serious safety issue that must be resolved to prevent further failures from occurring."

Under NRC rules, major changes in new steam generator design require a painstaking NRC license amendment review and public hearings. But the NRC instead "accepted Edison’s misleading characterization" that the new generators would be a "like-for-like" replacement – but were not, FOE said in a statement. The result was a critical equipment failure that was costly for California ratepayers and could have endangered millions, the group said.

Southern California Edison, the operator of the San Onofre plant "followed the NRC’s detailed guidance in procuring its replacement steam generators, meeting the NRC’s technical specifications," Edison International, the parent company said in a June 7 statement.

Officials at Edison International did not return calls by press time seeking comment on the recent NRC findings and the petition.

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