—The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week suspended all nuclear power licensing decisions until it can address environmental concerns regarding long-term storage of nuclear waste.The ruling puts a halt to license renewal applications for nine plants, including Indian Point in New York and Seabrook in New Hampshire.Under the order, the commission, for the first time, will require environmental assessments of nuclear waste now held at the nation’s 104 reactor sites.The decision comes in the wake of a June 8 U.S. Appellate Court ruling that struck down two key provisions of a so-called “waste confidence rule” and growing public pressure to evaluate the potential hazards of spent fuel pools and dry cask storage at nuclear reactor sites in the United States in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.There are 104 nuclear reactors at 64 operating plants in the United States, according to a report from CNN. Half are more than 30 years old.Diane Curran, an attorney representing some of the groups in the Court of Appeals case, said: “This commission’s decision halts all final licensing decisions — but not the licensing proceedings themselves — until NRC completes a thorough study of the environmental impacts of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road.“When the Federal Appeals Court ordered NRC to stop and consider the impacts of generating spent nuclear fuel for which it has found no safe means of disposal, the agency could choose to appeal the decision by Aug. 22 or choose to do the serious work of analyzing the environmental impacts over the next few years. With today’s commission decision, we are hopeful that the agency will undertake the serious work.”What the NRC’s decision means for the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon is unclear. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission renewed the plant’s license to operate for an additional 20 years in March 2011, weeks after a tsunami led to the meltdown of three nuclear reactors in Japan. Vermont Yankee is a Mark 1 General Electric boiling water reactor, identical to the models used in Japan.No one interviewed for this story said Vermont Yankee’s relicensure case would be re-evaluated by the NRC. Several sources suggested the commission’s new requirement for environmental assessment of waste storage could have an impact on the Vermont Public Service Board’s pending consideration of a certificate of public good for the plant.Entergy Corp. is seeking state approval for a 20-year license to operate the plant. At the same time, the Louisiana company is suing the state over the Legislature’s 2010 vote to deny Entergy an opportunity to seek a certificate of public good from the board.Lawmakers cited the deteriorating condition of the plant (a cooling tower collapse in 2007 and tritium leaks in 2010) and misstatements by corporation officials as reasons for withholding approval. Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat who spearheaded the state Senate vote, is named in the Entergy lawsuit.In court proceedings last year, Entergy argued that federal law pre-empts a 2006 state statute that gave the Legislature the right to deny the company permission to obtain a license to operate from the Vermont Public Service Board.Entergy’s lawyers won the first round of legal arguments in large part using evidence that lawmakers cited safety as a concern during the Senate debate and in other legislative testimony. Safety is the purview of the NRC; the state can only weigh in on questions of reliability and environmental and economic impacts.The federal court ruled Entergy must be given an opportunity to obtain a certificate of public good. The Vermont Public Service Board is currently considering the matter. Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell is challenging the decision.Sandra Levine, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, said given NRC’s ruling on the waste confidence rule and a future environmental assessment, the board will likely be concerned about the economic consequences of long-term waste management at Vermont Yankee.
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