NRC: In Reactor Licensing, Government May Ignore Health and Environmental Threats of Mounting Waste Stockpiles
Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
A fast-tracked vote August 26 by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will allow resumption of licensing for new nuclear reactors, and re-licensing for old units. The agency’s 4-0 decision is based on the assertion that extremely radioactive waste fuel produced by the reactors can be stored onsite indefinitely without threatening nearby communities.
The NRC’s action is a response to an order by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which voided the agency’s Waste Confidence Rule — a key regulation that had streamlined the licensing process by declaring the NRC’s “confidence” that its regulations would keep the waste “safe” until that day when it would be moved to permanent underground storage — in 2012. The appeals court found that the NRC had no basis for “confidence” in waste management since there is no plan for how to manage or isolate the most concentrated radioactive wastes ever produced — used fuel from power reactors.
The appeals court ordered the NRC to consider various impacts of nuclear power’s waste production, noting that since the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,” it is possible that waste fuel will be stored at reactor sites “on a permanent basis.”
The NRC’s action will likely be appealed, but meanwhile allows new reactors to be built and old ones to expand their operations even without any long-term plan for disposing of the waste.
The court also rejected the NRC’s official minimizing of the risks of leaks or fires from waste fuel stored in reactor cooling pools. The court said the agency had not demonstrated that future impacts would be insignificant. It also concluded that the NRC had not shown that catastrophic fires in waste fuel pools were so unlikely that their risks could be ignored.
Diane D’Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director at Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), an intervener in the federal case, said reactor licensing had been frozen since August 2012, when the NRC declared a temporary halt rather than conduct site-specific environmental reviews that would have been required without the “waste confidence” policy that was voided by the court.
With the August vote, according to a statement by Geoffrey Fettus, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “The commission failed to follow the express directions of the court. [It] failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste…” Fettus was the lead lawyer in the original court case. Even the Chair of the NRC, Allison M. Macfarlane, said August 29 that “the vote risked allowing Congress to ignore the long-term problem,” according to the New York Times.
In 2012, the NRC staff indicated it would take as much as seven years to critically evaluate the complex dangers of waste storage, including analysis of risks and impacts at reactor sites. A quicker way was chosen. The commission approved a “generic” environmental impact statement, “but did not address the impact to the environment if the stored nuclear waste were abandoned,” the Times reported.
“The Commission, like the Emperor who realizes he has no clothes, has been rushing around to find cover. Unfortunately, the vote [August 26] is for a fig leaf instead of a proper set of new clothing,” D’Arrigo said.
— NIRS News Release, Aug. 26, New York Times, Aug. 29, 2014; & Vegan magazine, June 2012.