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U.S.: radioactive waste issue: suspension of new reactor licenses

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

A Perfect Storm is brewing on radioactive waste issues in the U.S., one that will inevitably lead to major changes in radioactive waste policy. Already, elements of this storm have led to a full suspension of all new reactor licenses and license renewals in the U.S..

This confluence of events began with President Obama’s decision, early in his term to end the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada radioactive waste dump and, in tandem with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to end Department of Energy funding to pursue this project. Energy Secretary Chu then appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission to recommend a new approach to radioactive waste issues.

Given that decision, former NRC Chair Greg Jazcko refused to spend any more NRC money or resources on reviewing the Yucca Mountain license application despite harsh criticism from the industry and some in Congress. Jazcko has now been replaced by Yucca-skeptic Allison Macfarlane, who was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

The Commission reported its recommendations earlier this year. They include establishment of a new, but largely undefined entity to handle radioactive waste policy -essentially removing the responsibility from the Department of Energy. The Commission also urged adoption of a new, but also undefined, community “consent” process for siting of a radioactive waste dump. Of most immediate concern to environmentalists, the Commission also recommended speedy establishment of a “centralized interim storage” site for radioactive waste. There is no real scientific, technical or safety basis for such a site -it would use the same dry cask technology as can be used, and is being used, at reactor sites. But it would encourage the generation of more radioactive waste and set off the widespread transport of radioactive waste across the U.S. In the 1990s, this concept was dubbed Mobile Chernobyl, and was defeated by a veto from President Clinton, which was upheld by the U.S. Senate.

The Commission’s recommendations are now reflected in new legislation (S. 3469)(*1) offered by retiring Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and will be included, although probably in somewhat different form, in a new proposal slated to come from the Obama administration in September 2012. Sen. Bingaman said his committee will hold a hearing on the bill in September, but a date has not yet been set. And Bingaman has publicly acknowledged that his bill so far has little support and will not pass this year. What he wants to do is to begin to lay the groundwork for Congressional consideration next year. A key stumbling block is that his bill does not establish centralized interim storage fast enough or large enough for some members of Congress -meaning that the environmental community has substantial work to do to explain to Congress- many of whose members were not there in the 1990s -the reasons for our unaltera-ble opposition to centralized interim storage.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had re-issued its “waste confidence rule, which states that the NRC need not consider radioactive waste generation in licensing new reac-tors or extending licenses of existing reactors, because the NRC was confident that a permanent radioactive waste site would be licensed eventually and that, if not, existing onsite storage is good enough in any case. The agency was sued by several states and environmental groups like NRDC, and this sum-mer a federal court ruled in their favor, saying that the NRC has no valid reason to believe a permanent site ever will be established and has no technical basis for stating that existing on-site storage methods are good enough.

Responding to the court decision, grassroots intervenors (including NIRS) filed new contentions in every current new reactor and license renewal case arguing that the NRC no longer has any basis to issue new reactor licenses or renewals. The NRC, in Chairwoman Macfarlane’s first major decision, ruled in favor of the intervenors and said the agency indeed cannot grant any new reactor licenses, or approve any new license renewals, until it has addressed the waste confidence problem and provided a technical basis for its rule. Early indications are that this could take a year or more. 

In the meantime, pro-nuclear forces are marshaling to try to force Yucca Mountain on Nevada and the American people, and to try other mechanisms to speed nuclear power development, create new radioactive waste sites regardless of environmental impact, and to ignore the hard lessons learned from the past 25 years of failed radioactive waste policy.

The Fukushima disaster and the frightening reality of severe damage to a reactor's irradiated fuel pool have crept into public awareness. At the same time, fuel stored in dry casks at Fukushima was apparently not adversely affected by either the earthquake or tsunami. Add to that a growing recognition that fuel pools at U.S. reactors are typically much fuller than those at Fukushima, and thus are both more vulnerable and carry a larger radioactive inventory, and concern over radioactive waste issues has grown in the U.S. The specter of widespread transport of radioactive waste likely will lead to greater public concern.

Over the past few years, the nation's anti-nuclear, environmental community has managed to coalesce behind a statement of principles for radioactive waste. These principles are known as HOSS -for Hardened On-Site Storage- and reflect a belief that high-level radioactive waste should remain where it has been generated, but that the fuel pools should be emptied to the extent possible as soon as possible into dry cask storage that is additionally protected by berming and other features from natural disasters, terrorism and the like.(*2) No one believes that dry casks are a permanent solution to the problem, but after years of discussion, the nation's anti-nuclear movement believes they are the best answer for the present for the waste that already has been generated. Of course, ending the generation of any more radioactive waste is also vital, and demonstrating the shortcomings of every possible waste storage method -including the preferred method of HOSS- is a key step toward ending waste generation generally.

It is clear that major changes are coming to radioactive waste policy, probably over the next 18 months. What isn’t clear yet is what those changes will be. There is both opportunity and threat. This could be the chance to finally obtain a policy that can withstand public and scientific scrutiny, or it could be a return to the failed approach of seeking short-term industry gain at the expense of long-term scientific and public credibility.

*1- available at: gov/public/index.cfm/featureditems?ID=b6de054d-b342-...
*2- available at:

Source and contact: NIRS Washington