NUCLEAR WASTE

Court orders NRC to expand environmental review of spent fuel storage

A federal appeals court today ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not done enough to consider the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel at sites around the country.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of environmental groups and states that had challenged two NRC decisions.

The environmentalists, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, had claimed the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 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 states, led by New York, challenged the "temporary storage rule" that NRC subsequently issued, which weighed the specific environmental impacts of storing fuel at individual plants.

In today's ruling, the court vacated both the waste confidence decision and the storage rule.

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Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote that NRC's latest waste confidence decision constituted a "major federal action" that requires "either an environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant environmental impact."

The court also found that NRC's "evaluation of the risks" in the storage rule was faulty in two ways.

First, the agency failed to consider the possibility of no permanent storage facility being built.

NRC had claimed the practice of storing spent fuel at individual plants was only a temporary move, based on the fact that a national repository would be constructed within the next 60 years, despite the decades of political deadlock over the issue. Most recently, the Obama administration killed a proposal to site a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

"The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository," Sentelle wrote. "If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then SNF [spent nuclear fuel] will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis."

The agency also neglected to consider "future dangers and key consequences" of waste being stored at plants up to 60 years after the expiration of the facility's license, Sentelle wrote.

Specifically, the environmental analysis was lacking in regard to the future risk of leaks or fires in the pools where fuel rods are stored, the court held.

Sentelle concluded that the commission "has failed to conduct a thorough enough analysis here to merit our deference."

Addressing the decision on the waste confidence decision, NRDC attorney Geoff Fettus said he was hopeful NRC will not appeal the ruling.

"It has to go back and do a very significant environmental impact statement," he added.

An NRC spokesman said the agency's lawyers were reviewing the decision.

Click here to read the ruling.

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