The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acted hastily in concluding that spent fuel can be stored safely at nuclear plants for the next century or so in the absence of a permanent repository, and it must consider what will happen if none are ever established, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday. (June 8, 2012, pdf) In a unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said that in deciding that the fuel would be safe for many decades, the commission did not carry out an analysis of individual storage pools at reactors across the country, treating them generically instead. The commission also did not adequately analyze the risk that cooling water will leak from the pools or that the fuel will ignite, the court wrote. The commission has relied on its conclusion that spent fuel rods can be safely stored at plants to extend the operating licenses of dozens of power reactors in recent years and to license four new ones.
The plaintiffs — four states, including New York, environmental groups and an American Indian organization — declared victory, although the precise implications were not clear. Still, it appeared that the commission would have to prepare and publicly defend an assessment that storage for many decades or even indefinitely did not entail large risks.
In the 1980s, Congress directed the Department of Energy to prepare a plan for creating a national repository at Yucca Mountain, a volcanic structure in the Nevada desert about 100 miles from Las Vegas. But that plan, decades behind schedule, was shelved in 2010 by President Obama, who had promised in his 2008 campaign to kill it if elected. Some Republican lawmakers are now hoping to revive the idea of storage at Yucca but would face determined opposition, above all from the leader of the Senate’s Democratic majority, Harry Reid of Nevada.
“The commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository,” the appeals court wrote. If the federal government “continues to fail in its quest” to find a place for spent nuclear fuel, then the material “will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis,” the court said, and the commission will have to size up the environmental risks of this. Failing to establish a repository is “a possibility that cannot be ignored,” the judges said……
Opponents of nuclear power have long cited the lack of a firm plan for a waste burial place in opposing license extensions for reactors. In the meantime, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan last year have sharpened a debate about how the fuel is stored now. Most of it is kept in deep pools made of steel-reinforced concrete and lined with stainless steel, in water that is monitored and filtered. At most plants those pools have been packed full, and some older fuel has been moved into dry casks.Such casks have survived floods and earthquakes without apparent damage, and some experts have called for thinning out the pools and filling up more casks. The commission has said that either method is acceptable. The fear is that if a pool leaked or if cooling failed and the pool boiled dry, the fuel could catch fire, although many experts doubt this is possible.
In its ruling on Friday, the court said the commission had reached its conclusions by examining past leaks. But that history “tells us very little about the potential for future leaks or the harm such leaks might portend,” it wrote.
Excerpts, MATTHEW L. WALD, Court Forces a Rethinking of Nuclear Fuel Storage,New York Times, June 8, 2012