Tag Archives: nrc

Nuclear Waste Confidence: the hurry-up environmental impact assessment

Dry cask sstorage nuclear waste. Image from wikipedia

In documents filed Wednesday (Jan. 2, 2012)  with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a wide range of national and grassroots environmental groups said it would be impossible for the NRC to adequately conduct a court-ordered assessment of the environmental implications of long-term storage of spent nuclear reactor fuel in the two short years the federal agency envisions for the process.The groups’ comments and related declarations by experts are available online at http://www.psr.org/resources/nrc-rushing-nuclear-waste-confidence-process.html

In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the NRC’s 2010 Waste Confidence Decision and Temporary Storage Rule and remanded them to the agency for study of the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel indefinitely if no permanent nuclear waste repository is licensed or if licensing of a repository is substantially delayed. Spent nuclear fuel remains highly dangerous for prolonged periods. It has long-lived radioactive materials in it that can seriously contaminate the environment and harm public health if released. Additionally, spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium-239, a radiotoxic element that can be used to make nuclear weapons if separated from the other materials in the fuel. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years.

In their filings, the 24 groups said a full review of the three issues outlined in June 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – long-term storage risks for spent nuclear fuel, spent fuel pool fire risks, and spent fuel pool leakage risks – would take at least the seven years originally projected by the NRC staff, and likely considerably longer. Current federal law requires that the NRC conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) study before issuing a revised Waste Confidence Decision; the 24 groups submitted their comments about the appropriate “scoping” of the EIS.

In the absence of an adequate EIS review, the NRC has “no choice but to continue to suspend all licensing and re-licensing actions” for U.S. nuclear reactors, according to the 24 organizations. All licensing and re-licensing actions were previously suspended by the NRC until an EIS and revised Waste Confidence Decision have been issued.  The 24 groups jointly filing the comments today with the NRC are the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, Beyond Nuclear, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Citizens Environmental Alliance, Don’t Waste Michigan, Ecology Party of Florida, Friends of the Earth, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, New England Coalition, Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, NC WARN, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Riverkeeper, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The expert declarations were made by: Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Dr. Gordon Thompson, executive director for the Institute for Resource and Security Studies; and Phillip Musegaas, Esq., Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper, Inc.

Highlights of the 24-group filings include the following:

•The “hurry-up” two-year timeframe for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate of NRC’s own technical staff for data collecting and analysis on the impacts of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. The NRC currently lacks sufficient information to reach scientifically, well-founded conclusions about the impacts of such storage. The agency also lacks information regarding the impacts associated with the eventual disposal of spent nuclear fuel. According to Dr. Makhijani, the NRC will not be able to gather this information within its truncated, self-imposed two-year timeframe.

•The short timeframe provided for environmental review will also not permit post-Fukushima information about U.S. reactors to be fully collected and evaluated. Under the schedule established by the NRC staff in March 2012, reactor licensees are not due to supply post-Fukushima seismic information until September 2013 for reactor sites in the eastern and central U.S. and March 2015 for western reactor sites. According to the groups’ filing with the NRC today: “Given the significant role played by seismic events in accidents ranging from spent fuel pool leaks to pool fires and their potential effects on long-term storage sites, this information is crucial to the NRC’s ability to take a ‘hard look’ at all three topics remanded by the Court.”

•Despite the Court’s order to consider impacts associated with the failure to ever establish a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel, the NRC proposed only to consider the impacts associated with failing to secure a repository by the end of this century. Dr. Makhijani and Dr. Thompson argue that the NRC should consider the environmental impacts of failing to establish a repository until 2250, requiring approximately 300 years of onsite storage.

•The NRC should consider alternatives to minimize the risks of storage of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste, including placement below ground level, elimination of the current practice of high-density storage of spent fuel in pools, and more robust designs for storage casks.

•The environmental impact statement should assess the radiological risk arising from a range of conventional accidents or attacks, including those conducted by terrorists.

24 Groups: NRC Rushing Nuclear “Waste Confidence” Process, Not Satisfying Court-Ordered Requirements, PRNewswire, Jan. 3, 2013

Safety of Nuclear Fuel at Pools: From Fukushima to Yucca Mountain

An Entergy Corp.  unit sued the U.S. for $100 million alleging the government breached a contract for disposal of nuclear waste at two plants in Michigan.  Entergy Nuclear Palisades LLC, owner of the Palisades Nuclear Plant and the Big Rock Point plant, alleged yesterday that the Energy Department collected fees under a 1983 contract without ever starting to dispose of the radioactive material. The suit is in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington.  Entergy and a previous owner of the shuttered Big Rock Point plant “have fully complied with all their fee payment obligations under the contract,” according to the complaint. “The government, however, has failed to perform its reciprocal obligation to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, and currently has no plan to meet these obligations.”

Entergy’s lawsuit is the latest legal challenge stemming from the federal government’s failure to create a central, long- term facility to store nuclear waste.  Most nuclear-plant owners continue to store spent nuclear fuel onsite despite contributing for decades into a fund meant to finance a central waste depository.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is freezing U.S. operating licenses for at least two years as it reassesses waste-storage risks and strategies in response to a June 8 order by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.  See US Court of Appeals

Entergy Corp., based in New Orleans, is the second-largest owner of nuclear plants in the U.S.  Through June 30, Entergy and Consumers Energy Co., the former owner of Big Rock Point, have paid about $274 million into the fund under the contract, the company said. Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The case is Entergy Nuclear Palisades LLC v. U.S., 12-cv- 1641, U.S. Court of Federal Claims (Washington).

By Tom Schoenberg and Julie Johnsson, Entergy Sues U.S. for Failure to Dispose of Nuclear Waste, Bloomberg, Sep 27, 2012

The Nuclear Proliferation Potential of Laser Enrichment

The following is being released by Physicians for Social Responsibility:  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is putting U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy at risk if it decides not to require a formal nuclear proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process for a uranium laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C.  That’s the message from 19 nuclear non-proliferation experts in a letter sent today asking the NRC to fulfill its statutory responsibility to assess proliferation threats related to the technologies it regulates. The letter is available online at http://www.psr.org/nrcassessment.

Global Laser Enrichment, LLC, a joint venture of General Electric (USA), Hitachi (Japan) and Cameco (Canada), has applied for a license to operate a laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, based on Australian SILEX technology. The NRC licensing review schedule sets September 30, 2012 as the date of license issuance.  One of the authors of the letter, Catherine Thomasson, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility, said:“It is a widely shared view that laser enrichment could be an undetectable stepping-stone to a clandestine nuclear weapons program. To strengthen U.S. policy and protect the U.S. and the world from nuclear proliferation, the NRC should systematically and thoroughly assess the proliferation risks of any new uranium enrichment technology BEFORE issuing a license allowing their development.”  Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said: “If the U.S. is going to have moral authority in dealing with proliferation threats in other nations, such as Iran, it must do a better job of taking responsible steps in relation to proliferation threats in our own backyard. In fact, a persuasive case can be made that laser enrichment technology requires even more immediate action, since this is a known danger that can be addressed directly by the NRC under its existing regulatory authority.”

In the letter, the experts note that the NRC has no rules or requirements for a nuclear proliferation assessment as part of this licensing process. The experts are concerned that the Commission is falling short in its duties since a 2008 NRC manual on enrichment technology clearly states that laser enrichment presents “extra proliferation concerns due to the small size and high separation factors.”

Previous letters to the NRC asking for a proliferation assessment, signed by many of today’s signatories, have been rebuffed. NRC is on record stating that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require preparation of a proliferation assessment. However, a March 27, 2012 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service clearly concludes that the NRC has legal authority “to promulgate a regulation” requiring a proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process.  Both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and the Atomic Energy Act are cited by the experts as statutory basis of the NRC’s responsibility to assess proliferation risks.

Excerpt, 19 Experts: Nuclear Proliferation Risks Of Laser Enrichment Require Fuller NRC Review, PRNewswire, Sept 5, 2012

Proliferation Risks of Laser Enrichment

Laser Uranium Enrichment

Nuclear Waste Disposal in the United States, who will run with the ball?

Two years after President Obama pulled the plug on plans for the nation’s only high-level nuclear-waste dump, it’s still not clear if the decision is final.  On Friday, a federal-appeals court ruled 2-1 that the court may order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart efforts to license Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste repository.  The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to filings by the state of Washington and others, said federal law makes clear that the NRC is obligated to continue trying to license the dump site — regardless of what the Obama administration has said.  Unless Congress decides otherwise by mid-December, two of the judges indicated they would likely be willing at that time to order the NRC to restart the process.

Washington and South Carolina, as well as others representing the nuclear industry, have long counted on Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for spent nuclear fuel and millions of gallons of radioactive waste left over from Cold War bomb production.  That’s where the 153 million gallons of nuclear slop in leaky underground tanks at Eastern Washington’s Hanford reservation were slated to go once a treatment plant turned the waste into stable glass rods.  But the White House in 2010, during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hard-fought election in Nevada, announced it would withdraw the license application for the unpopular project 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The NRC chairman unilaterally stopped the licensing process in its tracks. That led to lawsuits from the states, an internal investigation and ultimately the chairman’s resignation.  But now the NRC maintains that it has too little money appropriated to reconsider Yucca Mountain — an argument the states found lacking.  “The NRC didn’t provide any legal argument other than saying, at this point, ‘We’ve spent a bunch of money and we’re down to about $10 million,’ ” said Andy Fitz, an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington. “Our position was that they had put themselves in that situation. They had decided to put money to other uses. That’s not a legally valid excuse.”  Two of the three judges agreed, but said they would wait until Congress finishes its appropriations process later this year.

But even if Congress doesn’t clarify its position on whether it wants the NRC to move forward, the judges made clear they probably would.  “It is possible that Congress will … add no clarity to the current dispute,” one judge wrote, later adding, “If Congress provides no additional clarity on the matter, however, we will be compelled to act.”

By Craig Welch, Court re-energizes fight for nuclear-waste repository, Seattle Times, Aug. 3, 2012

See also Nuclear Waste in the United States: the risk of leaks

Who Wants to Open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository Site?

Nuclear Waste in the United States; the harm that leaks portend

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

Litigating the Future of Nuclear Energy: United States

Until this past February 2012, the last time new nuclear power construction was approved in the United States was in 1978. But when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved two proposed nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia, on February 9 in a four to one vote, it took less than a week for the legal action to begin.  Nine environmental groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on February 16. The concerns at the heart of their challenge – safety issues and the Fukushima disaster – were similar to those of NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko, the sole dissenter in the commission’s vote.  Jaczko argued that Southern Company, whose company Southern Nuclear operates the Vogtle plant, had not proved it would take steps necessary to ensure the reactors could withstand an earthquake like the one that occurred in Fukushima, Japan in March 2011.  “I simply cannot authorise issuance of these licenses without any binding obligation that these plants will have implemented the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident before they operate,” he wrote.

The groups are “working to challenge the NRC’s approval of the reactors because they fail to take into account public comments received by the agency concerning the proposed reactors’ security risks, following the Fukushima disaster”, Sara Barczak, a program director at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one of the groups who filed the lawsuit, told IPS.  The other groups include the Blue Ridge Environmental Defence League, Centre for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Friends of the Earth, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South and North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.  The Turner Environmental Clinic at Emory University Law School has been assisting with much of the legal work on the case.

A related legal challenge regarding the AP1000 reactor design by Westinghouse Electric Company, which would be used in the new Vogtle reactors, argued that the approval of the reactor design also failed to take into account the Fukushima disaster.  Those two challenges have been consolidated into one, and the groups recently filed a motion to stay further construction of the new reactors at Vogtle, which they hope will be heard within a month or so.  “We still have concerns about the ability of that reactor design to deal with seismic issues such as earthquakes….The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any agency has to recalibrate and reissue an Environmental Impact Statement considering the information,” Barczak said.  “They would have had to do reassessments of doses to the public, reevaluating doses to site workers and the community, the evacuation plan, how the operator would handle a multi-unit meltdown,” she explained. “It would be a fairly substantial review.”…

Excerpt, Matthew Cardinale, Legal Challenges Counter Plans for New Nuclear Reactors, IPS, April 14