NUCLEAR WASTE:

NRC halts licensing decisions amid storage debate

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today voted unanimously to wait before approving licenses for new nuclear plants or renewing the licenses of existing facilities until the dilemma of how to store hot, radioactive waste at sites across the country is resolved.

The five-member panel, headed by the newly confirmed Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane, voted to delay issuing licenses until it responds to a federal appeals court ruling in June that the agency did not sufficiently analyze the environmental effects of storing nuclear waste without a permanent solution in sight (E&ENews PM, June 28).

While the process for licensing new and existing plants will move forward, no final decisions will be made, NRC said.

Today's decision will most directly affect Entergy Corp.'s Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City, which is closest to receiving a license renewal from the commission, as well as several other license renewals. Indian Point's two reactors in Buchanan, N.Y., expire in 2013 and 2015.

Progress Energy Inc.'s Levy plant in north-central Florida would be next in line to receive a combined operating license from NRC.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in June vacated two NRC rules -- the waste-confidence decision and the storage rule -- and said the agency had failed to conduct an environmental impact statement or a "finding of no significant environmental impact" before deeming the storage of waste in wet pools and dry casks safe (Greenwire, June 8).

The court's decision was hailed as a major victory for environmental groups and states that had challenged two NRC decisions.

The Natural Resources Defense Council had claimed the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately considering the environmental implications of storing spent fuel at nuclear plants -- sometimes for years after operations have ceased -- when it issued its most recent approval of the practice, known as the "waste confidence decision," in December 2010.

The court faulted NRC for assuming a national repository would be built within the next 60 years, despite decades of political deadlock over the abandoned repository under Yucca Mountain, Nev., and the current congressional gridlock over how to move forward.

The commission said it is 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." NRC also vowed to allow the public to comment in advance on any generic waste-confidence document that is issued, whether it is a new rule, a policy statement, an environmental assessment or an environmental-impact statement.

"Given the circumstances created by the court's decision, the agency reasonably permitted licensing reviews and adjudications to proceed while it addresses the remand," said Ellen Ginsberg, the Nuclear Energy Institute's general counsel. "The commission appropriately used its inherent supervisory authority to direct licensing boards to hold related contentions in abeyance pending further agency action."

Today's decision marks the first major action NRC has made since Macfarlane was sworn in as chairwoman. Macfarlane, a geologist and professor, replaced former Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who stepped down amid infighting at the agency.

The meeting was the second for Macfarlane, who has vowed to bring collegiality to NRC.

"It's a fantastic place, I'm enjoying it very much," she said today.

Fukushima review

Concerns surrounding the storage of spent nuclear fuel also weighed heavily on the commission's discussions today about safety upgrades following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that crippled three reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Dave Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, criticized the commission for not prioritizing the movement of waste from wet pools to dry storage in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

Top NRC officials ordered a 50-mile evacuation around the crippled Japanese reactors last year because they feared a wet pool storing waste near the crippled reactors had gone dry. Jaczko ordered the evacuation and said it was partially based on the assumption that the pool -- like American facilities -- was potentially full of nuclear spent fuel rods (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

Lochbaum said the event should have been a wake-up call for the United States, but instead "we're doing a pitiful job of managing spent fuel hazards," allowing fuel to be stored in packed pools that could trigger or exacerbate an accident.

NRC should have a strong understanding of how waste can be safely stored before moving forward with licensing plants, he added.

Christopher Paine, the NRDC's nuclear program director, complained that only a handful of safety recommendations have been formalized and issued since the Fukushima disaster erupted. An NRC task force issued a dozen safety recommendations last year for protecting plants against floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, some of which are now being implemented at the country's 104 reactors (E&ENews PM, July 19).

The industry has proposed a multimillion-dollar plan to shore up extra safety equipment at U.S. reactors in response to the Fukushima disaster. Under the "flexible mitigation capability" plan, plant operators would pay up to $100 million to collectively buy the equipment and build up to six regional warehouses across the country (Greenwire, March 6).

Paine said that he did not find the industry plan "credible" and that NRC should simply mandate safety upgrades as opposed to allowing operators to make voluntary steps to make plants safer. Lochbaum agreed there is a need for mandatory safety changes and said the industry actually struggles when faced with voluntary safety changes.

On the other hand, industry representatives warned that a new surge of regulations and duties could overwhelm the industry.

Casey Pfeiffer, president of the Professional Reactor Operator Society, said the industry in recent months has grappled with tornadoes, flooding and earthquakes in the United States. New post-Fukushima rules could complicate those burdens, and staffing is already thin at some plants, he said. For example, barriers meant to keep water off pumps that cool nuclear reactors could also make the equipment inaccessible, he said.

Lochbaum rejected that notion and said energy companies have plenty of funds to beef up their staff to protect the public.

Democratic NRC Commissioner George Apostolakis said he was "greatly disturbed" by Paine's views of NRC and asked if he had any examples of how he was pleased with the agency's actions.

Paine applauded NRC's immediate response to the Fukushima disaster and the creation of a task-force report but said those recommendations are now being watered down.

"Part of our displeasure ... was that the logic of [the report's] structure was immediately disassembled," he said.

Macfarlane and Democratic Commissioner Bill Magwood seemed to sympathize with Paine's assertion that environmental and anti-nuclear groups face daunting timelines and standards when raising safety issues before NRC.

"Hopefully, you'll see some changes there," Macfarlane said.