Federal Court Throws Cold Water on Nuclear Waste Ruling
NRC must prove no significant environmental harm
The nuclear energy industry here has just been dealt a blow -- by a U.S. federal appeals court. One just ruled that nuclear regulators did not fully assess the risks associated with allowing utilities to store their spent fuel onsite for decades longer than originally intended.
The U.S. Court of Appeals from the District of Columbia wrote that by stretching the time period from 30 years to as many 60 years, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) failed to properly examine the environmental consequences of its actions. As a result of the NRC’s earlier decision, some states sued and argued that any leaks from the spent fuel storage pools or dry cask storage could harm groundwater supplies and potential land use.
Four Northeastern states that include Connecticut and New York won this round, along with the environmentalists supporting their cause -- a legal case that took direct aim at the NRC’s 2010 decision to extend the time frame to store nuclear waste. The parties that brought the suit now maintain that the court ruling, effectively, prevents the NRC from licensing or re-licensing any nuclear plants until commissioners conduct a full review of the potential environmental risks from extending onsite storage rights.
“This is a critical decision for Connecticut and other states with nuclear power plants,” says Connecticut Attorney General Jepsen. “It means the federal regulators must make a full and comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impact of before allowing additional decades of storage of high-level nuclear waste at reactor sites.”
Both the Indian Point reactor in New York and the Vermont Yankee reactor have had small leaks containing nuclear material that seeped into the groundwater. Altogether, 65,000 tons of spent fuel are stored at 75 operating reactor sites around the country. More than 2,000 tons are being produced each year.
The nuclear industry says that it is studying the issue but acknowledges that the decision is a setback. It believes that the NRC did present a compelling case in 2010. But it says that it is now imperative that the commission fulfill its legal obligations under the Environmental Protection Act so that nuclear operators are not left in regulatory limbo. Long run, though, the industry still maintains that a permanent storage facility is necessary.
The ruling did say that the NRC does not have to provide such a detailed analysis for each and every onsite storage site -- only a general environmental impact statement or a finding of no significant environmental harm. Still, opposition groups are saying that they will push hard to require site-specific evaluations, which could add years to any licensing or re-licensing process.
“We are disappointed by the court’s decision,” says Ellen Ginsberg, general counsel for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “Nonetheless, we urge the commission to act expeditiously to undertake the additional environmental analysis identified by the court in the remand.”
The ruling could spell trouble for an industry that has been coping with Japan’s nuclear crisis. And when coupled with the Obama administration’s decision to cut off funding for a permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada a few years ago, it would appear that nuclear industry has its hands tied.
But not so fast. Yucca Mountain may get a second life. Advocates of the proposed permanent storage site are saying that U.S. officials have a legal obligation to create the burial site whereas the opponents are saying that there are too many pitfalls associated with the location. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia could decide in a few months whether to force the NRC to re-open a licensing case.
Recognizing that nuclear energy here makes up 20 percent of the generation portfolio and that such plants won’t just evaporate, the court ruling could conceivably work to expedite a pro-industry finding. And it is probable that the NRC’s revisions to its earlier onsite storage analysis will still result in the same conclusions -- that extending the time frame is environmentally feasible, and safe.
“The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating,” says the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.
Onsite storage of nuclear waste was never meant to be a long-term solution. But nuclear operators have only acquiesced to extending such rights because they are unable to find a permanent resting spot. The court ruling may hamstring the nuclear industry but it could also focus legislative attention on what it needs to continue providing reliable energy to the American people.
EnergyBiz Insider is named a 2012 Finalist for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.