The nuclear industry tried to quell anxiety yesterday about the government's decision to freeze licensing decisions while tackling the country's nuclear waste woes, but environmentalists and some experts say change is afoot for the nuclear fleet because of an underlying court case.
At issue is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision this week to delay final license approvals and extensions until it answers a federal appeals court's ruling that found the commission's "waste confidence" rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act.
The rule, the court said, didn't fully consider the potential for fires and leaks at spent fuel pools and had inappropriately assumed Congress would find a final repository "when necessary." The court vacated both the waste confidence decision and a separate storage rule (Greenwire, June 8).
The Nuclear Energy Institute rejected environmentalists' assertions that the NRC's decision to delay licensing approvals was a "full stop" and said the agency's move was predictable and wouldn't affect 20 new proposed plants that wouldn't have been built before the end of the decade anyway.
Provisions in NRC rules also exist that allow certain plants with expiring licenses to continue operating until the waste issue is resolved, NEI said. And the licensing hold won't interrupt the construction of the country's first new reactors in more than three decades in Georgia and South Carolina, the industry group said.
"In a nutshell, the impact, if any, of the NRC's order halting final licensing decisions will depend on how quickly the NRC satisfies the court's requirements with regard to [NEPA]," Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for NEI, said in a statement.
But environmental groups and legal and nuclear experts say the NRC's licensing freeze and response to the court could portend more far-reaching changes for how the United States handles nuclear waste.
"I think this is a game-changer," said Richard Webster, an attorney for the public interest law firm Public Justice in Washington, D.C. "It really puts the pressure on the agency to solve the problem, and it's getting to the point where kicking the can down the road is more and more difficult."
The NRC will be forced to analyze the potential for fires and leaks at wet spent fuel pools to comply with NEPA and to establish a timeline for how long the waste must be stored on site, said Diane Curran, an attorney who represented the environmental groups in the case.
Those requirements could push the agency into uncomfortable territory that bleeds into the politics surrounding the now-abandoned nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain, Nev., she said.
"It's clear, now, that there's no known solution for this spent fuel," Curran said. "It may need to be stored above ground indefinitely for hundreds of years, and that raises enormous questions about the containers you keep it in, how you regulate those [structures] for hundreds of years."
For now, it remains unclear how or when the NRC will respond to the court's ruling.
The commission has said it's considering whether to issue a generic rule or to look at the site-specific environmental effects of storing nuclear waste in wet pools and dry casks.
Essentially, the agency will need to respond to the court's ruling that the waste confidence decision constituted a "major federal action" that requires "either an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant environmental impact."
The commission will need to address the tricky question of when and if a national repository will be found, said Lake Barrett, the former head of the Energy Department's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management.
The Obama administration abandoned Yucca Mountain two years ago and created a Blue Ribbon Commission to review alternatives for storing and disposing of waste. The Energy Department has not yet released a long-awaited report about how to implement the expert panel's recommendations, which included a call for the construction of one or more repositories.
"How long the waste is in the pool, 50 to 60 years, you can talk about that. If it's hundreds of years, then it's a political question," Barrett said. "That's going to be a challenge for the NRC to account for the time element."
Webster said he's hopeful the NRC's analysis -- in addressing the dangers of leaks and fires at spent fuel pools -- will support the movement of nuclear waste from wet pools to dry storage. If the pools that hold the hottest and freshest spent fuel rods are thinned out, the interior stainless steel liners that can crack and leak can be inspected more easily, he said.
"It's not like it's a solution, but it's better than we've got," Webster said. "If they take the waste out of the pools or they thin the pools down, then the fire risk goes down dramatically because you don't have the same heat."
It's also unclear whether the NRC will use ongoing studies that staff members are conducting on spent fuel to comply with NEPA.
The commission has been working since 2010 on a study about the effects of storing spent nuclear fuel in wet and dry storage for up to 300 years, said David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman. Another ongoing study, expected to be released later this year, looks at the safety benefits of transferring nuclear waste from wet pools to dry casks.
Moreover, the industry stands to benefit if the NRC provides more certainty about how nuclear waste should be stored and disposed of, Barrett said.
"Nuclear waste policy can shape reactor operation policy in the long haul," Barrett said. "If you can solve the nuclear waste problem, that will help nuclear reactors move forward to a nuclear renaissance. If you can't, it's a drag and a burden [for the industry]."
Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner and an adjunct law professor at Vermont Law School, said it's too early to tell how the agency will respond, and noted that the makeup of the commission has changed after Allison Macfarlane was sworn in as the new chairwoman last month.
How the nation manages spent fuel could more directly be affected by the NRC's safety upgrades following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, Bradford said. Three reactors at the site were severely damaged -- triggering evacuations and radioactive releases -- and fears mounted that a spent fuel pool on site had gone dry, which would have triggered a larger radioactive release and warranted expanded evacuation (Greenwire, Feb. 22).
"I think it's more likely to come as a result of the Fukushima review," he said. "Issues of spent fuel management are directly raised by what happened at Fukushima, at least in reactors of that design."