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Groups team up to fight nuclear relicensing

26 organizations, including New England Coalition, want safety examined after Fukushima

BRATTLEBORO—The New England Coalition (NEC) has no plans to stand still while the calendar ticks down to September when the Entergy v. Vermont case — litigation that could decide the fate of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power station’s renewal license and three Vermont statutes — resumes in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro.

Instead, the 40-year-old antinuclear organization has filed contentions in conjunction with multiple advocacy groups, such as Beyond Nuclear, Riverkeeper Inc., and Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario, against the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

The 26 organizations filed 19 legal challenges against the NRC last week calling for the delay or cancellation of all nuclear reactor relicensing pursuant to federal law.

NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said the federal agency “will review the groups’ filings and respond appropriately to each filing.”

In a press release, the 26 groups contend that the NRC needed to “put on the brakes” when it came to licensing or renewing licenses for U.S. nuclear plants in light of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March that heavily damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.

The groups say that federal law requires the NRC to strengthen regulations to protect citizens from “severe accident risks, or until it has made a careful and detailed study of the environmental implications of not doing so.”

The one-two punch of the earthquake and tsunami led to partial nuclear meltdowns in three of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors, and led to the largest radiation release since the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine.

The NRC commissioned a task force to investigate whether what had happened in Japan could happen at a U.S. reactor and compile a “lessons learned” report.

The 26 groups say the task force’s 90-day review “produced substantial new information” raising health and safety concerns warranting new environmental impact statements for plants in the licensing process.

“In light of the disastrous and ongoing events at Fukushima, it is clear that the issues of public safety raised by the task force are exceptionally grave,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear expert who prepared a declaration that will be filed with the contentions.

Proceeding without completing such impact statements would be illegal, said the groups. They insist that if the NRC issued a license prior to conducting required environmental analyses, federal courts could hold the commission liable.

“Significant regulatory changes are needed to ensure that existing or new nuclear reactors do not pose unacceptable safety and environmental risks to the public,” said Makhijani.

According to the groups’ press release, additional analysis could yield substantial results and the possible rejections of some license applications by the NRC.

Nuclear facilities addressed by the groups’ contentions include Diablo Canyon (California), Watts Bar (Tennessee), Bellefonte (Alabama), Summer (South Carolina), South Texas, Comanche Peak (Texas), Vogtle (Georgia), Turkey Point (Florida), Indian Point (New York), Calvert Cliffs (Maryland), Davis-Besse (Ohio), Seabrook (New Hampshire), Fermi (Michigan), Levy County (Florida), Shearon Harris (North Carolina), North Anna (Virginia), Bell Bend (Pennsylvania), and W. S. Lee (South Carolina).

According to the press release, the groups are also pursuing a technical finding from high in the NRC that leads to upgraded safety standards.

“This near-simultaneous and nationwide attack on the NRC’s way of doing business regarding license renewals of nuclear stations is in response to the NRC’s refusal to consider the events in Fukushima in any meaningful way,” said Clay Turnbull, a staff member of the NEC.

“These legal actions are intended to force the NRC to obey the law, to pause in the rush to lock in 20-year license renewals for the aging fleet of reactors in the U.S., and to learn from events still unfolding in Fukushima,” Turnbull said.

“We are a long way off from understanding some of the most rudimentary forces that contributed to the destruction at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex,” he continued.

On the coast

The NEC, in conjunction with Friends of the Coast (FOC), has filed a contention to address the safety and environmental implications of the Fukushima task force report as it pertains to NextEra Energy Seabrook LLC’s Seabrook Nuclear Station, Unit 1, in Seabrook, N.H.

Although the plant’s 40-year operating license won’t expire until 2030, NextEra has decided to start the renewal process in 2010. The company claims that seeking licensing approval at the current stage of the plant’s life allows for the best long-term planning for maintenance and equipment expenditures.

The Seabrook power station has one power unit generating 1,244 megawatts of electricity. Westinghouse manufactured the reactor, while General Electric built the plant’s turbine.

According to their court documents, the NEC and FOC contend similar claims logged by the 24 other organizations: namely the post-Fukushima task force’s reports of concerns about the safety of Seabrook during a severe accident, like flooding or earthquake.

These concerns, said the two groups, require a re-evaluation of many of Seabrook’s emergency response plans.

“Pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (‘NEPA‘), the analysis demanded by this contention may not be deferred until after Seabrook is licensed,” wrote NEC and FOC lawyers in their court filing.

The two organizations say NRC commissioners have delayed action on the task forces’ recommendations. For this reason, the groups have told the court that their contention “constitutes the only way” of ensuring that the environmental implications around Seabrook are given fair consideration.

In their filing, the NEC and FOC, said that the task force found that “the NRC’s safety approach is incomplete without a strong program for dealing with the unexpected, including severe accidents.” In turn, the task force recommended the commission perform safety investigations, impose design changes, upgrade equipment, and make improvements to emergency planning and operating procedures.

The two parties also noted that the task force had discovered that the accident at Fukushima was not the NRC’s first warning regarding strengthening safety programs.

In 1979, according to court documents, an independent body commissioned by the NRC investigated the core meltdown at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania.

The group, headed by Mitchell Rogovin of the NRC’s Special Inquiry Group, recommended an “expansion” of accidents covered under the basic-design requirements.

The Fukushima accident task force, according to the NEC and FOC, said that despite the findings of the Three Mile Island report, the NRC had not made any “fundamental changes” to their basic accident design requirements.

The NEC and FOC also highlighted the task force’s concern that, in general, the NRC does not require mitigation measures for accidents more severe than those covered by a plant’s basic design requirements unless the measures show a favorable cost-benefit analysis. The plant can adopt such measures voluntarily.

The task force recommended that the U.S. nuclear fleet should adopt the “severe accident mitigation measures” without regard to cost. The NEC and FOC charge that this is true for the Seabrook plant as well.

“At the time the NEC was formed, nuclear plants were planned for all over New England, and our founders saw the need for a coordinated effort to educate and to intervene that went beyond any one reactor community,” said Turnbull about the NEC and FOC’s collaboration.

Lessons of Fukushima

The NRC’s five commissioners and its chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko, have begun assembling their reactions to the task force’s recommendations.

The NRC’s office of the secretary will consolidate these responses and then the commissioners will take a final vote, said Sheehan.

Sheehan said the NRC reviewed the post-Fukushima task force’s “near-term” recommendations last month. A “longer-term” review remains on the horizon.

Fukushima-related changes will apply to all U.S. reactors, said Sheehan. In the meantime, the task force has told the commission the “existing plants are safe” and there are “no immediate concerns.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #114 (Wednesday, August 17, 2011).

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