Court Issues NRC Another Rebuke on Spent Fuel Policies

A court ruling Friday will force the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reevaluate the environmental impact of storing spent fuel at nuclear plants around the country in the absence of a waste repository at Yucca Mountain or one like it.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals challenged 2010 agency rule changes on spent fuel, including one that upped allowable storage time at plants from 30 years to 60 years after their licenses expire. The unanimous decision ruled that the NRC’s environmental analysis of the rule change was insufficient and ordered the agency to conduct another one.

“This is a game changer,” said Geoff Fettus, who argued before the court in March. He is a senior project attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is among the environmental groups that joined four Northeastern states and the Prairie Island Indian tribe in bringing the suit. “This forces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of producing highly radioactive nuclear waste without a long-term disposal solution. The court found: 'The Commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,’” he said in an NRDC release Friday.

For decades, spent fuel has accumulated at commercial reactors as plant operators awaited completion of the long-delayed Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada. That program was de-funded in 2010, and a comparable repository project has not been selected. While the NRC assumed that the repository would be available “when necessary,” the court said that the agency had not evaluated the effects of a potential government failure to built a permanent storage facility, in which case dry casks at nuclear plants would effectively function as permanent storage.

The Nuclear Energy Institute said it was disappointed in the ruling. In a statement, the trade group’s general counsel Ellen C. Ginsberg said: “We believe that the NRC supported its conclusions in the waste confidence decision. 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.

“We are pleased that the court specifically affirmed the agency’s discretion to address the environmental issues in a generic fashion using an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment with a finding of no significant impact.”

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  • Anonymous

    When politics take over the responsibilities of scientist and engineers you get a @#%^  mess !!!!!