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Three states press issue of nuclear waste

Sorrell, attorneys general from New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts petition NRC

Vermont and three other states have petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to re-evaluate the environmental impacts of long-term storage of spent radioactive fuel on nuclear plant sites.

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell and the Department of Public Service joined attorneys general from New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in a petition requesting that the NRC reconsider its decision to continue to allow storage of spent fuel rods in on-site pools instead of dry cask storage.

The petition also asks the commission to re-evaluate the ongoing production of spent fuel rods when the federal government has no permanent repository for the waste.

The attorneys general accuse the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of illegally limiting the options for long-term storage of radioactive waste, and in so doing, failing to evaluate the environmental impacts of allowing nuclear companies to continue to use spent fuel pools.

The NRC is responsible for ensuring the safety of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants.

“Federal law requires that the NRC analyze the environmental dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactors that were not designed for long-term storage,” Sorrell said in a statement.

Vermont Yankee, the state’s sole nuclear power plant, in Vernon, has 1,507 fuel rod assemblies submerged in a watery spent-fuel pool, which was originally designed to hold about 350.

The pool has five full reactor cores worth of radioactive material, according to Ray Shadis of the New England Coalition, an anti-nuclear group. Dry cask storage containers are hundreds of times safer than the spent fuel pool, Shadis said. At this point, the site has 13 loaded casks, four of which were filled in 2012. Each cask, which can hold 72 assemblies, costs $1 million.

A recent NRC ruling known as the “Staff Scoping Decision” allows Entergy Corp., which owns the plant, to keep spent fuel in pools on site indefinitely.

That decision, the attorneys general argue, flouts a recent court decision that requires the NRC to address the environmental impact of on-site storage of nuclear waste.

Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., threw out the so-called “waste confidence rule.” The court found that the NRC did not adequately analyze environmental effects when it determined that spent nuclear fuel can be stored on site for 60 years after a plant’s license expires.

The court also found the agency failed to address the future effect of not establishing a spent nuclear fuel repository when it said a geologic repository for that radioactive waste would be available “when necessary.”

Vermont was a party in the lawsuit with New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

At the time, Sorrell said the decision underscored the federal government’s lack of planning for a comprehensive solution to the waste created by nuclear power plants.

“The court questions whether it is reasonable for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to be issuing new licenses or relicensing plants given the federal government has dropped the ball on the storage of spent nuclear fuel,” Sorrell said.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently withdrew its application for a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a plan that had been in the works for 20 years. The court said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to do an environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act of the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel in light of the fact that there is no national plan.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #205 (Wednesday, May 29, 2013).

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