Dry cask storage units of nuclear fuel at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant… (Toby Talbot/Associated…)
A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must consider the environmental and safety issues involved with long-term storage of radioactive wastes at power plants when it renews operating licenses, a potentially important new requirement as older reactors continue operating.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., underscores the growing problem that the nuclear energy industry faces as it continues to generate new waste and has no place to send it. The oldest nuclear sites have been storing spent fuel rods since the Eisenhower administration.
The ruling came on a suit brought by four states, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, who have asserted that the nuclear industry has been putting the public at risk and federal regulators have failed to oversee the practices closely enough.
The three-judge panel ruled that the NRC evaluations have been deficient because the commission has failed to consider future risks when it has determined spent fuel can be stored for 60 years at the plant sites. It also said the commission has been wrong in not weighing the possibility that the radioactive fuel may have to stay where it is permanently, because the federal government may never have a nuclear dump for the spent fuel.
“What the ruling says is that the NRC has violated the law in not doing an environmental analysis for when there will be a repository for nuclear waste,” said NRDC attorney Geoffrey Fettus.
New York Atty. Gen. Eric T. Schneiderman called the ruling a game changer in terms of protecting public safety.
“We are disappointed by the court’s decision as we believe that the NRC supported its conclusions in the waste confidence decision,” said Ellen C. Ginsberg, vice president and general counsel of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group. “Nonetheless, we urge the commission to act expeditiously to undertake the additional environmental analysis identified by the court in the remand. We also encourage the agency to reissue the rule as soon as possible.”
The ruling comes about one year after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in Japan, in which spent fuel pools leaked massive radiation into the environment. At the time, experts said such an accident in the U.S. would have even greater consequences, because U.S. plants are storing so much more spent fuel in the cooling pools.
At many U.S. plants, the spent fuel pools contain far more radioactive waste than they were designed for. As the pools have filled to capacity, the NRC has allowed the plants to store older waste in massive concrete casks outdoors.
“The relicensing process is a scandal,” said former NRC commissioner Victor Galinsky. “The agency hardly looks at anything. They don’t question the basic assumptions of the original license. In the environmental review, the only thing they look at is whether the population has changed around the plant.”
Galinsky said the NRC has been unwilling to recognize that dry cask storage is safer than keeping the pools filled up, because the nuclear industry does not want to bear the higher cost of moving the material to dry casks.
Mitch Singer, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute rejected that view, saying the industry still believes both storage systems are safe.
[Updated, 6:12 p.m. June 8: The National Energy Institute has contended that there is no evidence that the pools leaked or were responsible for massive releases of radiation. In NEI’s view, the bulk of the radiation release occurred from the hydrogen gas explosions that wracked the plants in the early days of disaster. By contrast, outside experts have contended that the pools were responsible from releases, based on radiation samples around the plant and the timeline of the releases. ]