As the country struggles to find a place to bury spent nuclear fuel, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided that nuclear waste from power plants can be stored above ground in containers that can be maintained and guarded indefinitely.
The decision, in a unanimous vote of the commission Tuesday, means that new nuclear plants can be built and old ones can expand their operations despite the lack of a long-term plan for disposing of the waste.
The chairwoman of the commission, who voted with the majority but dissented on certain aspects, said Friday that the vote risked allowing Congress to ignore the long-term problem.
“If you make the assumption that there will be some kind of institution that will exist, like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that will assure material stays safe for hundreds or thousands of years, there’s not much impetus for Congress to want to deal with this issue,” the chairwoman, Allison M. Macfarlane, said Friday. “Personally, I think that we can’t say with any certainty what the future will look like. We’re pretty damned poor at predicting the future.”
In the 1980s, Congress picked Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas, as the prime location for a burial site, but that consensus fell apart in the face of sharp opposition from Nevada and a changing political balance. The Energy Department is now saying that a burial site will be established by 2048, but the agency has no method for finding one.
The commission approved a generic environmental impact statement, under which nuclear activities can continue, but did not address the impact to the environment if the stored nuclear waste were abandoned, which would leave it vulnerable to attack or allow the containers to break down.
Macfarlane said it was wrong to predict institutional control indefinitely. “Best not to say anything about something so uncertain,” she said, “and just to work with what we can know for sure.”
For decades the commission has allowed nuclear plants to operate under what it called its waste confidence rule, which said that although there was no repository, there would most likely be one by the time it was needed, and in the interim, the storage of the highly radioactive waste in spent fuel pools or in dry casks would suffice. But in June 2012, a court ruled that the commission had not done its homework in studying whether the waste could be stored on an interim basis. As a result, the commission froze much of its licensing activity two years ago.
On Tuesday, however, the commission approved a finding by its staff that waste could be stored — as opposed to disposed of — indefinitely. The vote was 4-0.
Some nuclear opponents say the issue is certain to wind up back in court. At the Natural Resources Defense Council, Geoffrey H. Fettus, the lead lawyer in the original case, said in a statement: “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste; the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years. The commission failed to follow the express directions of the court.”
The action, though, allows the commission to extend the licenses of two reactors in Pennsylvania, Limerick 1 and 2, and to extend the license for storage casks holding spent fuel at another two-unit plant, Calvert Cliffs, in Maryland.
Several other license renewals would have had to have been denied had the new policy not been put in place, including Indian Point 2 and 3, in Buchanan, New York, but those license applications still have other unresolved issues. Likewise, several applications to build reactors would eventually have been blocked, except that those plants were not very likely to be built in the near future.
In coming years the agency will need to reconfigure its staff to handle a different problem: an increased number of plants shutting down and entering the decommissioning process, MacFarlane said. And, she said, the commission needs to rewrite its rules for decommissioning plants. For example, she said, once the nuclear fuel has been removed from a reactor core, the security requirements at the plants should probably be relaxed because the risk is reduced.
First Published August 28, 2014 8:00 PM