NRC Must Weigh Storage Risks

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 @ 07:06 PM gHale

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must consider environmental and safety issues involved with long-term storage of radioactive wastes at power plants when it renews operating licenses, a potentially important new requirement as older reactors continue operating.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., underscores the growing problem the nuclear energy industry faces as it continues to generate new waste and has no place to send it. The oldest nuclear sites have been storing spent fuel rods since the Eisenhower administration.

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The ruling came on a suit brought by four states, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, who have asserted the nuclear industry has been putting the public at risk and federal regulators have failed to oversee the practices closely enough.

The three-judge panel ruled the NRC evaluations have been deficient because the commission failed to consider future risks when it determined spent fuel can store for 60 years at the plant sites. It also said the commission has been wrong in not weighing the possibility the radioactive fuel may have to stay where it is permanently, because the federal government may never have a nuclear dump for the spent fuel.

“What the ruling says is that the NRC has violated the law in not doing an environmental analysis for when there will be a repository for nuclear waste,” said NRDC attorney Geoffrey Fettus.

“We are disappointed by the court’s decision as we believe that the NRC supported its conclusions in the waste confidence decision,” said Ellen C. Ginsberg, vice president and general counsel of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group. “Nonetheless, we urge the commission to act expeditiously to undertake the additional environmental analysis identified by the court in the remand. We also encourage the agency to reissue the rule as soon as possible.”

The ruling comes about one year after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, in which spent fuel pools leaked massive radiation into the environment. At the time, experts said such an accident in the U.S. would have even greater consequences, because U.S. plants are storing so much more spent fuel in the cooling pools.

At U.S. plants, the spent fuel pools contain far more radioactive waste than the original design called for. As the pools filled to capacity, the NRC has allowed the plants to store older waste in massive concrete casks outdoors.

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