New York, Vermont Threaten To Sue NRC Over "Waste Confidence" Review

WASHINGTON – New York and Vermont are threatening to sue the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if it does not alter the course of an environmental review that the states say must consider the potential impacts of the United States never establishing a permanent repository for radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

A federal appeals court in June sided with the states, along with several watchdog organizations, which had argued the commission wrongly assumed such a storage site would be ultimately established, even though no plans currently exist.

In order to license atomic sites, the agency must make a determination that it is confident there will be a secure location at which the waste the plants produce can be permanently stored. However, the Obama administration canceled the controversial Yucca Mountain project in Nevada and has not put forward an alternate project.

As a result of the ruling in the case New York v. NRC, the commission has suspended the licensing of new nuclear power plants and the repermitting of aging facilities.

According to the court, the commission failed to properly examine the potential consequences of fires in spent fuel pools at reactors sites – where nuclear waste has been piling up in absence of a permanent disposal facility. Nongovernmental organizations fear such fires could result from acts of terrorism and subsequently cause massive radiation releases.

To address the ruling, the commission is developing a new environmental impact statement -- the first step toward issuing a revised “waste confidence” determination. The commission accepted public comments on the potential scope of the new document through Wednesday.

In joint comments, the states of New York and Vermont argued that the commission has already improperly limited the scope of the environmental review. In an October announcement that opened the comment period, the commission appeared to assume “that further production of nuclear wastes without a permanent waste repository in existence will be allowed,” the states argued.

According to the states, the June court ruling dictates that the environmental review “should explore all reasonable alternatives to continued generation of nuclear wastes and continued storage of nuclear wastes at reactor sites in the manner now allowed, including prohibiting further production of nuclear wastes until the commission can determine that there is a date by which a permanent, safe, and secure repository will exist for disposing of nuclear wastes.”

In addition, the review should “rigorously explore all of the potential impacts associated with long-term and indefinite storage of nuclear wastes at reactor sites following reactor shutdown, including the risk of fires, earthquakes, flooding, loss of power and cooling capacity, deterioration of the social order, deterioration of spent fuel pools and dry casks, failure of funding sources to provide sufficient resources to manage and secure nuclear wastes at each reactor site long after the site is longer a source of any income to its owner, the social and economic impacts on the communities where theses nuclear wastes will remain indefinitely at sites where there are no operating reactors, and malevolent acts,” the states argued.

Not broadening the scope of the environmental review would directly conflict with the court’s June ruling and prompt additional litigation, the states contended. “By failing to squarely confront these issues now, NRC may well push completion of the EIS process out for several additional years as it awaits an appeal and likely reversal of its decision to restrict the scope of this court-mandated environmental review,” they said.

In joint comments, 24 watchdog groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Beyond Nuclear, suggested that the commission might not be able to issue an adequate environmental impact statement and revised waste confidence determination in the time it has allowed itself. The commission “has not given itself enough time to conduct the necessary research and analyses to support reasonable assurance findings with respect to the safety of long-term spent fuel storage,” the groups claimed in the Jan. 2 comments.

The commission presently expects to issue a draft environmental impact statement this fall, and to finalize that document, along with a new waste confidence rule, in 2014. The groups argued this would only give the agency enough time “to summarize currently available information about the risks of long-term spent fuel storage,” which they say is insufficient.

“There is no existing environmental or other study that has even attempted to predict the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel on site for hundreds of years, or perhaps indefinitely” the groups said. “Indeed, all other studies have been premised on the opposite conclusion – that a repository will be available in the relative near future.”

Commission staff has started work on one study that could satisfy their concerns, the watchdog groups said. That analysis, called the Long-Term Waste Confidence Update Project, is not expected to be finished until 2019. The commission should not issue an impact statement and revised waste confidence rule until that study is complete, the groups argue.

Commission spokesman David McIntyre said on Thursday the long-term study was expected to take seven years because it was a low priority to which only two NRC staffers were assigned part time. The work the commission is conducting in response to the October court decision, however, is a “high-priority project” to which “more than 20 full-time staffers” have been assigned, he said.

“We are confident that we can complete a thorough study and publish a comprehensive environmental impact statement to satisfy the court’s requirements by September 2014,” McIntyre said.

The atomic power industry supports the goal of completing the process by that time, the Nuclear Energy Institute said in recent comments to the commission. “Maintaining this schedule is an essential objective, since the commission will not make a final licensing decisions on pending license applications dependent upon the [waste confidence determination] until the [court] remanded issues are resolved,” the industry organization stated.

The organization urged the commission to conduct a narrow review, arguing that, “other environmental consequences of, and alternatives to, nuclear plant licensing should not be encompassed by the planned EIS. … The proposed EIS addressing interim on-site storage is not a forum to address the advantages or disadvantages of nuclear power generally, the impacts of nuclear plant operation, site specific issues, or the merits of any particular licensing action,” the NEI comments said.

January 4, 2013

WASHINGTON – New York and Vermont are threatening to sue the Nuclear Regulatory Commission if it does not alter the course of an environmental review that the states say must consider the potential impacts of the United States never establishing a permanent repository for radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.