Nuclear Regulatory Commission halts nuclear power licensing decisions

Federal court’s partial repeal of ‘waste confidence rule’ puts halt to license renewals for 9 plants, including Seabrook

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.

“The board can only allow continued operation of Vermont Yankee if it determines that operation promotes the good of the state,” Levine said. “Unsound waste management or any lack of clarity around waste doesn't promote the general good of Vermont. (The state) shouldn't be left with the burden and cost of having to store waste at the facility indefinitely, not knowing where and when it goes somewhere else.”

Other advocates say the U.S. Appeals Court decision on the “waste confidence rule” and the NRC's subsequent order to suspend the issuance of new licenses is a victory for free speech.

Raymond Shadis, executive director of the anti-nuclear group New England Coalition, hails a provision in the order and memorandum from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that allows citizens and state officials to raise questions about the efficacy of storing nuclear waste on reactor sites. The coalition was one of 24 organizations that petitioned the NRC in June.

“Until now, no intervenor was allowed to raise questions in a legal forum about safety or environmental impacts or even the duration of waste storage,” Shadis said.

For the last 30 years, the commission has licensed plants under a “waste confidence rule,” which gave operators and regulators assurances that a long-term storage repository would be built to contain spent radioactive fuel rods and other waste that is being kept on nuclear reactor sites around the country. The deadline for the repository was originally 1998, then the date was moved back to 2005.

In 2010, Congress defunded plans to build a deep geological repository in New Mexico at Yucca Mountain.

Shortly afterward, the NRC issued a new “waste confidence rule” that left open the question of when a waste facility would be built and made on-site storage of spent radioactive material an ongoing proposition. The NRC determined that “if necessary, spent fuel generated in any reactor can be stored safely and without significant environmental impacts for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life for operation.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia ruled on June 8 that the NRC could no longer give reasonable assurances “that sufficient geologic repository capacity will be available for disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel 'when necessary',” nor could the commission, according to the court finding, provide reasonable assurances that spent fuel can be stored safely without significant environmental impacts beyond a reactor's licensed life for operation, in a combination of dry cask and spent fuel pool storage.

Elizabeth Miller, commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said Vermont Yankee's relicensure case with the NRC began in 2006, before the 2010 rule change. It would not be possible, she said, to ask the commission to reconsider the case. The NRC is only halting renewals for pending licenses.

“It's important that the NRC has recognized its obligation under federal law to specifically identify the contingencies related to nuclear fuel storage that affect the operation and relicensure of nuclear plants,” Miller said. “It cannot put off another day an investigation into what permanent storage solution for nuclear waste will be available for nuclear plants in the United States.”

VY's spent fuel pool

Vermont Yankee has 1,507 fuel rod assemblies submerged in a spent fuel pool, which was originally designed to hold about 350. Spent fuel must be kept under water in order to prevent the uranium, which can remain hot for several years, from igniting.

Shadis says the problem is that if the pool should “suffer any kind of trauma - an aircraft impact, an explosive from saboteur, or an earthquake, and the pool loses cooling water, the fuel could heat up to the point that the metal in which the fuel is configured, the tubing that holds the fuel, can then catch fire.”

“The deal is, once it gets hot enough, rapid oxidation catches fire like a grill. It is so oxygen thirsty at that point, that you can't put water on it to put it out and the fire would disperse radioactive material into the environment,” Shadis said.

Vermont Yankee's spent fuel pool, located in a metal warehouse structure, has more than five full reactor cores worth of radioactive material, Shadis said. If there was an accident, he said the impact would be five times greater than a single reactor meltdown.

“The NRC's own studies show extraordinary casualties as result of a spent fuel pool accident,” Shadis said. “Even if a site were evacuated by 95 percent there would still be thousands of casualties because, unlike the reactor, there is no containment around the spent fuel pool,” Shadis said.

The dry cask storage containers on the site 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 this year, according to Neil Sheehan, NRC public affairs officer for Region 1.

Each cask, which can hold 72 assemblies, costs $1 million, according to Shadis.

“There are economic considerations for the company,” Shadis said. “And those are the only considerations for the company. The company is convinced the waste is perfectly safe in the spent fuel pool. We're not convinced of that. In our view, the only reason Vermont Yankee doesn't move to put all the fuel into dry cask is because they are trying to go the cheapest way possible and they have no confidence that the Department of Energy is going to come pick it up right away.”

Calls to Entergy Corp. officials for this story were not returned.

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