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Watchdog Groups Add to Legal Criticism of Nuclear Waste Review

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – Watchdog groups who successfully sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year are pushing back against industry efforts to expedite an NRC review of the potential impacts of leaving radioactive waste at nuclear power plant sites indefinitely.

The groups, along with several state governments, in June won a civil case in which they argued the commission had wrongly assumed a permanent waste repository would be established, even though plans for such a disposal site remain uncertain. The Obama administration on Friday released a plan under which a repository would be constructed nearly 50 years later than the now defunct Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was supposed to have opened, and it remains unclear where the new facility would be located.

In its ruling in the case New York v. NRC, a federal appeals court ruled the commission failed to properly examine the potential consequences of fires in spent fuel pools at reactor sites – a scenario the plaintiffs argued could result from acts of terrorism. Waste has been piling up in the pools in the absence of a repository.

As a result of the ruling, the commission has suspended all power plant licensing proceedings until it can complete a court-ordered review of the potential environmental impacts of leaving the waste at the reactor sites and determine that it still has “confidence” the material will be secure. In comments submitted last month, nuclear power industry officials encouraged the commission to stick to a two-year timetable for completing the review, arguing the agency could base the effort largely on previously completed studies.

Watchdog groups rejected that notion in supplemental comments filed on Tuesday with the commission. They took particular issue with the Nuclear Energy Institute’s assertion that the commission “has previously compiled numerous technical studies regarding the risks and environmental impacts of on-site spent fuel storage that it can rely on in assessing both the probabilities and consequences of spent fuel pool fires.”

Diane Curran, an attorney who represented some of the groups in the lawsuit, argued that the commission has not published any public studies on spent fuel fire risks since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. She said the commission claims to have conducted such studies privately during the past decade, but noted the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office last year determined the commission “could not easily identify, locate, or access studies it had conducted or commissioned because it does not have an agency-wide mechanism to ensure that it can identify and locate such classified studies.”

Without such studies, Curran argued it would be impossible for the commission to satisfy the requirements to conduct a thorough review under the National Environmental Policy Act, the law on which the June court ruling is based. Industry’s arguments also violate the Atomic Energy Act, “which forbids the NRC from elevating the economic interests of the nuclear industry over NRC’s responsibility to protect public health and the environment,” Curran said.

As it is, three state governments are already threatening to sue the commission if it does not expand the scope of the environmental review. New York and Vermont have filed comments suggesting the agency’s stated approach to the study is likely to prompt additional litigation and delays. Massachusetts has endorsed this position.

Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman John Keeley stood by the industry group’s position on Wednesday, saying a two-year schedule “allows … a full review of the issues identified by the” court. “Maintaining this schedule is an essential objective, since the commission will not make final licensing decisions on pending license applications dependent upon the [waste confidence determination] until the remanded issues are resolved,” he said by e-mail.

Earlier this month, watchdog groups said the only NRC study that could satisfy their concerns, the so-called Long-Term Waste Confidence Update Project, is not expected to be finished until 2019. Commission spokesman David McIntyre indicated that particular study was expected to take so long because it was a low priority to which only two NRC staffers had been assigned part time. The court-ordered environmental review, however, could be completed faster because it was a “high-priority” project to which “more than 20 full-time staffers” have been assigned, he said.

Arjun Makhijani, engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, argued on Tuesday that no amount of prioritizing the court-ordered review could make it possible to complete an adequate study within the time frame the commission and industry officials have proposed.

“They could put 500 staffers on this and they could not do it in two years because they need a physical research program,” Makhijani said during a conference call with reporters.

Makhijani argued the commission needs to collect original data on spent fuel degradation, transportation and handling risks, along with seismic geologic data in light of the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. He estimated that it would take 10 years to gather and analyze such data.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said during a conference call Wednesday that the commission would announce its decision regarding the scope of the environmental review in March.

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