NRC Freezes Licensing for Nuclear Plants

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission won’t approve licenses for new or existing nuclear power plants until it figures out what to do with hazardous waste that's been piling up at storage sites across the country.
by | August 8, 2012
A 1992 photo of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Dump in Mercury, Nev., one of 72 storage sites across the country. (Photo: AP)

By Jim Malewitz, Stateline Staff Writer

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) won’t sign off on licenses for new and existing nuclear power plants until the commission addresses a decades-old problem plaguing states: what to do with spent fuel rods and other hazardous waste piling up at storage sites across the country.

In a unanimous decision on Tuesday (August 7), the commission said it will hold off licensing plants that are new or up for renewal. That’s until it responds to a court’s ruling that the NRC failed to consider the environmental impacts of continuing to store waste at sites meant to be temporary.

Licensing reviews will continue, the commission said, but no final decisions will be made.

More than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored at operating and shuttered reactor sites across the country. But those 72 sites in 34 states are filling up. Some 2,000 additional tons of waste are produced each year, according to a report released this year by the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

Congress’ failure to act on the issue has long stirred anger in states, several of which have enacted moratoriums on nuclear power plant construction that aren’t to be lifted until a permanent solution is found.

In June, a federal appeals court threw out the commission’s “waste confidence rule” and “temporary storage rule,” decisions that collectively approved the status quo for onsite storage. Siding with environmentalists and four states led by New York, the court said the commission’s rulemaking process was flawed in that it did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure a permanent disposal site -- “a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the court ruled. The NRC also, according to the court, “failed to examine future dangers and key consequences,” in its determination that spent nuclear fuel could be safely stored at nuclear sites for up to 60 years after their license expires.

The NRC is currently reviewing nine applications for license renewals. That includes two reactors at the Indian Point facility, which supplies power to a large slice of New York City. Licenses on its reactors are set to expire in 2013 and 2015.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly said he’d like to shut down the plant, known as one of the country’s most dangerous, in his effort to rework the state’s energy policy. But doing so could prove costly, experts say.

Eric Schneiderman, New York’s attorney general, hailed the NRC’s decision to halt the licensing of reactors.

“The storage of nuclear waste at nuclear power facilities poses long-term health and environmental risks, including the risk of leaks from spent fuel pools and fires, he said in a statement yesterday. “The NRC's commitment is a welcome step toward ensuring a full, fair and open examination of the numerous critical questions about the safety and environmental impact of Indian Point before any decisions are made about extending its operating licenses for another 20 years.”

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