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.

Mary Ann Chastain/AP/File
In this 2010 photo, steam rises from the cooling towers of nuclear reactors at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle, in Waynesboro, Ga. A federal court has found that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not adequately evaluated nuclear waste disposal provisions when granting licenses to nuclear power plants.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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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