Court orders NRC to take second look at waste storage
BRATTLEBORO - Concluding the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not examine the environmental effects of failing to establish a permanent repository for nuclear waste, an appeals court in Washington, D.C., threw out an NRC ruling that governed the storage of spent nuclear fuel at the nation's power plants.
"The court found the commission failed to evaluate future dangers and consequences in making its waste confidence decision in December 2010," said Susan Kinsman, spokeswoman for Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
In that decision, the NRC increased the number of years that spent nuclear fuel can be stored onsite from 30 to 60 years after a nuclear power plant ceases operations.
But late on Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the decision rises to the level of a major federal action, which requires either an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant environmental impact, neither of which the NRC conducted.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell characterized the NRC's 2010 decision as "wishful thinking."
Sorrell told the Reformer that the court noted that the lack of progress on a permanent repository has caused considerable uncertainty regarding the environmental effects of on-site storage and also called into question the reasonableness of continuing to license and relicense nuclear reactors in light of the federal government's failure to secure a long-term permanent storage facility.
Efforts to site the only nuclear waste storage facility in the United States, the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada, were suspended in 2010 and no replacement facility has yet been identified.
While the court's decision doesn't directly affect the state of Vermont's appeal of a recent district court decision allowing for the continued operation of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, said Sorrell, it will come to bear during the Vermont Public Service Board's deliberations over whether Yankee should receive a certificate of public good for continued operation.
"The board is reading the decision very closely," he said.
The court also determined that the NRC violated the law when it found "reasonable assurance" that sufficient, licensed, off-site storage capacity will be available to dispose of nuclear power plant waste "when necessary."
The appeals court wrote that the NRC "apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository."
New York was the first state to file a protest of the 2010 decision. Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey and Massachusetts signed on shortly after the petition was filed with the court. A number of environmental protection organizations and the Prairie Island Indian Community also signed on.
On the NRC's side, Entergy and the Nuclear Energy Institute were intervenors.
The circuit court found the NRC's evaluation of the risks of long-term storage was deficient because it did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage.
The court ordered the NRC to conduct a more thorough and objective review of the storage of nuclear waste and to do a proper review as mandated by the National Environmental Protection Act.
"The NRC Office of General Counsel is reviewing the court's decision," said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.
The states had argued that any leaks from spent fuel storage pools or dry storage facilities could have significant impacts on groundwater and land use and should have been considered before the storage period was extended.
Both the Indian Point reactor in New York and the Vermont Yankee reactor have had leaks of small amounts of nuclear material into the groundwater.
"We fought back against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's rubber stamp decision to allow radioactive waste at our nation's nuclear power plants to be stored for decades after they're shut down," stated New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. "The Court was clear in agreeing with my office that this type of NRC 'business as usual' is simply unacceptable."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.
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