NRC finalizes waste rule, lets licensing decisions resume

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today finalized a lengthy and high-profile waste rule and ended a two-year suspension on final licensing decisions, a move with direct implications for projects in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane and three of her colleagues in votes cast during the past two months and released today approved agency’s new "continued storage" rule dealing with the environmental effects of storing hot, radioactive waste at reactors.

Essentially, the rule accepts the premise that radioactive waste generated from reactors producing electricity can be stored safely for up to 60 years after a plant is closed -- or indefinitely if a permanent repository isn't built. That finding will be used in licensing decisions going forward.

But NRC documents also reflect deep concerns Macfarlane has with the environmental analysis underlying the rule.

Macfarlane took issue with the staff’s conclusion in “general environmental impact statement” that adverse environmental effects of storing waste for any period of time is “small,” adding that such an assertion would indicate a deep geological repository is not necessary -- when in fact it is.


Macfarlane called on the agency’s staff to take a deeper look at the possibility for nuclear waste to be stored at reactors across the country indefinitely -- a nod to the politically divisive and stalled process on Capitol Hill surrounding the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site in Nevada. She also said such an environmental analysis should be reviewed every decade. “The U.S. government has yet to meet its own long-established responsibility to site a repository for the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel, contrary to the hopes expressed in previous waste confidence decisions,” Macfarlane wrote. “I want to ensure that the NRC, through its own policymaking, does not tip the balance in the direction of avoiding this necessary task."

Macfarlane also called on NRC staff to include a “worst case” scenario should no repsonsitory be found and all legal and administrative controls fall by the wayside. Without speculating about future institutions or societies, the NRC can hypothesize on the failure of casks – large concrete and metal containers – holding the waste, she said.

The agency also said it would move forward with decisions on requests to build new waste storage sites and renew or issue new licenses for nuclear reactors.

Macfarlane told the House Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month that 24 actions were affected by the freeze, but only license renewals for Exelon Corp.'s Limerick nuclear plant in Pottstown, Pa., and the company's spent fuel storage site in Calvert Cliffs, Md., were awaiting final decisions.

Environmental groups had urged the NRC to delay today's vote until Bill Magwood -- an outgoing commissioner who has rejected declaring a conflict of interest in the issues -- left the panel. Both the NRC and Magwood rejected those requests (Greenwire, Aug. 21).

Today's vote marks what the NRC hopes will be the end of a years-long effort to address deficiencies identified by a federal court in the summer of 2012.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit two years ago sided with environmental groups and remanded a prior standing rule called the "waste confidence rule" back to the commission. The court said the NRC had violated the law by failing to consider the possibility that a national waste repository might never be built and had not conducted sufficient analysis on the potential for leaks or fires at massive pools storing spent fuel rods.

Not everyone is convinced the matter is settled.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the NRC could give "only one answer," that waste storage will suffice.

"They can't turn back the clock, and they know the Department of Energy isn't going to find a repository in the near future," he said. "Whether it's technically sound is a moot question for them. If they were to say no, there's no place [for the waste] to go."

Lochbaum said the final rule doesn't resolve the issues that the court raised surrounding the establishment of a repository, spent fuel pool fires and leaks.

"It's likely people will contest it," he said. "We'll see if the courts stick by their guns or acquiesce."

Environmental groups echoed that sentiment.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste; the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years," Geoffrey Fettus, lead counsel for Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. "The Commission failed to follow the express directions of the Court."

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