BRATTLEBORO -- The five-member board that oversees the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday voted to end a two-year moratorium on issuing new power plant licenses.
The moratorium was in response to a June 2012 decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that ordered the NRC to consider the possibility that the federal government may never take possession of the nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at power plant sites scattered around the country.
In addition to lifting the moratorium, the five-member board also approved guidance replacing the Waste Confidence Rule.
"The previous Waste Confidence Rule determined that spent fuel could be safely stored on site for at least 60 years after a plant permanently ceased operations," said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.
In the new standard, Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel Rule, NRC staff members reassessed three timeframes for the storage of spent fuel -- 60 years, 100 years and indefinitely.
The Nuclear Energy Institute applauded the NRC's ruling.
"The completion of this rule-making is an important step that will facilitate final decisions on industry licensing actions pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," Ellen Ginsburg, the institute's vice president, said in a statement. "Industry supports the commission's decision to continue its long-standing and court-sanctioned practice of considering long-term used fuel storage issues generically.
The Waste Confidence Rule had been the NRC's generic determination regarding the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed life for operation of a nuclear power plant. This generic analysis had been incorporated into the National Environmental Protection Act reviews for new reactor licenses, license renewals, and Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation licenses.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals found that the NRC's GEIS didn't satisfy its obligations under NEPA; that in making a "Finding Of No Significant Impact," the NRC needed to add additional discussions concerning the impacts of failing to secure permanent disposal for spent nuclear fuel, and concerning the impacts of certain aspects of potential spent fuel pool leaks and spent fuel pool fires.
The five-member commission concluded that the new generic environmental impact statement satisfies the NEPA requirements.
But Sandy Levine, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said the new rule is business as usual for the nuclear industry.
"The waste will stay at the plants indefinitely. Long-term storage of nuclear waste continues to be a problem the US has refused to grapple with."
And David Lochbaum, the director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in all reality, this was the only conclusion the NRC could reach.
"While the Department of Energy has collected over $10 billion from nuclear plant owners to construct and operate a spent fuel repository, they've not taken an ounce of spent fuel," said Lochbaum. "And they don't look like they will take anything, but money, for the foreseeable future. So, when asked is it safe to store spent fuel indefinitely until a repository opens, the NRC has but one answer. How could it say no?"
The Generic Environmental Impact Statement used to support the new rule analyzes impacts across a number of resource areas throughout each timeframe. Areas examined include land use, air and water quality, and historic and cultural resources. It also contains the NRC's analysis of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.
"As a result, those generic impacts do not need to be re-analyzed in the environmental reviews for individual licenses," stated a press release announcing the new rule.
According to the NRC, there were key assumptions used to justify the GEIS.
They included, but are not limited to: Institutional controls, including the continued regulation of spent fuel, will continue; spent fuel canisters and casks would be replaced approximately once every 100 years; a dry transfer system will be built at each location for fuel repacking; and all spent fuel will be transferred from spent fuel pools to dry storage no more than 60 years after operations cease.
Ray Shadis, technical consultant for the New England Coalition, said NEC will be advocating that the Public Service Board require the examination of the possibility of -- once Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon permanently ceases operations at the end of this year -- relocating the spent fuel in some other part of Vernon or elsewhere.
"Unless, of course, anyone thinks that a permanent waste dump is the best use of this Connecticut River waterfront in one of Vermont's most storied and historic settlements."
Sheehan said it would be mere speculation to discuss whether there will be court challenges of the final rule.
"However, given that earlier versions of the rule have been the subject of litigation, it is entirely possible there could be new challenges."
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.