The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will stop issuing permits for new nuclear power plants and have suspended all license extensions for current installations.
The decision surrounds unanswered concerns involving the storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste, and follows a landmark ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit (1).
The appeals court ruling invalidates the NRC’s 2010 updates to the Waste Confidence Rule Decision (WCD) and the Temporary Storage Rule (TSR), in which the NCR states it is safe to store the nuclear waste on-site until a suitable permanent storage facility can be found.
24 different groups filed a petition with the court on June 18th 2012, seeking to force the NRC to freeze the issuing of licences.
The groups involved in the petition include Beyond Nuclear, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Friends of the Earth, National Parks Conservation Association and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Inc.
The action was brought in part because the groups do not believe the NCR have thoroughly analysed the environmental and safety aspects of storing spent fuel on-site.
The original June 18th ruling agreed with this assertion, but disagreed with other aspects of the petition, including claims of negative financial impact in areas close to nuclear sites.
“We recognize that the Commission is in a difficult position given the political problems concerning the storage of spent nuclear fuel. Nonetheless, the Commission’s obligations under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] require a more thorough analysis than provided for in the WCD Update.” (2)
Stuck With No Place to Store Nuclear Waste
The political problems referred to above refer to the decades-long search for a suitable, permanent geologic storage facility, a search that is no closer to bearing fruit than when it was first proposed by the National Academy of Sciences in 1957.
The Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada was selected in 2002 as the site to store spent nuclear fuel in deep underground chambers, but the project was defunded under the Obama administration by Nevada Senator Harry Reid in 2010.
With the closure of the Yucca Mountain project, the United States is left without a single, permanent storage facility for the spent nuclear waste, an unthinkable situation in a country the size of the US.
With no other facility available, the danger that the NRC might have approved the continued storage of the waste on-site primarily because they have no other choice is all too apparent.
The latest appeals court ruling has now forced the NRC to reanalyse that position, a stance they confirmed on their website:
“Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both.
We have not yet determined a course of action. But, in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.”
Freeze is Not Permanent
The court statement advises that licensing reviews and proceedings should still take place, but for now “final license issuance” is frozen. The court also allowed the groups petitioning the court to “participate in future NRC proceedings on waste confidence,” ensuring that whatever decision is made in the future regarding the waste, those groups will be there every step of the way.
The hold on issuing licenses is not likely to have too great an impact on the US nuclear power industry, at least not for now.
In an interview with “Fierce Energy”, former NRC Commissioner Peter Bradford said:
“It is important to recognize that the reactors awaiting construction licenses weren’t going to be built anytime soon even without the Court decision or NRC action. Falling demand, cheaper alternatives and runaway nuclear costs had doomed their near-term prospects well before the recent Court decision. Important though the Court decision is in modifying the NRC’s historic push-the-power-plants-but-postpone-the-problems approach to generic safety and environmental issues, it cannot be blamed for on-going descent into fiasco of the bubble once known as ‘the nuclear renaissance’.” (4)
The 24-strong group of petitioners will meet in September to discuss their next steps.
Forcing the NRC to look again at the environmental and safety concerns of storing nuclear waste can only be considered a good thing. We’ll keep you posted with further updates as and when they occur.