NM790.4408 On August 26, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved its controversial replacement for its "waste confidence" rule that was slapped down in 2012 by a federal court and also approved a resumption of new reactor licensing and license renewal activities.
The new replacement rule essentially gives up on the notion of "confidence" that a permanent high-level radioactive waste repository will be built in any foreseeable time frame and instead expresses the agency's support for the concept that "continued storage" in the absence of a permanent repository − even for millenia − is OK with them. The votes on the two actions were both 4-0, although NRC Chair Allison Macfarlane dissented on part of the final version of the "continued storage" rule.
In 2012, a federal three-judge panel (DC appeals court) asserted that NRC had no basis for "confidence" since there is, in fact, no plan for how to manage or isolate the most concentrated radioactive wastes ever produced. Since 2012 NRC has fast-tracked an effort to recover its streamlined licensing authority by instituting a new "Waste Confidence" policy. Originally, NRC staff indicated it would take as much as seven years to truly evaluate the dangers of waste storage. A quicker way was found: use all the old assumptions, produce a generic analysis and allow the nuclear waste generators to skip any local, specific analysis of risks and impacts at nuclear power reactor sites. NRC has simply removed the word "confidence" and now writes about "continued storage" while insisting there is no significant environmental impact from this waste
In a statement on the vote, Nuclear Information and Resource Service Executive Director Tim Judson said "For two years we had hoped that logic would prevail: but no such luck. An irrational, industry-dominated NRC has affirmed carte blanche to dirty energy corporations: 'go ahead, produce as much highly radioactive waste as you want; tell us it is safe and we, the NRC, will believe you.' This decision makes it impossible for NRC to claim that it is independent. We agree with grassroots activists in nuclear power communities who have decided that this is a con job. NRC has done nothing to increase our confidence in its performance as a regulator of safety."
The NRC's "continued storage" rule almost certainly will be challenged in court on numerous grounds and by numerous parties. But in the meantime, the NRC has now lifted its moratorium on reactor licensing activities. In practical terms, there are no new reactor license applications that have been particularly inhibited by the moratorium, so unless some utility decides it really wants to press ahead with a new reactor, there will be little change there. The major license renewal case underway is that of Indian Point in New York, and the NRC is expected to resume activity on that case quickly. But the battle over Indian Point is being waged on several fronts and the NRC long has been expected to approve license renewal for those reactors. So it's not clear the NRC action will have a profound effect there either.
In her partial dissent, Macfarlane expressed concern about the failure of the Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) underpinning the rule to address what would happen in the event institutional controls over long-term waste storage collapsed − a not unreasonable position given the eons that radioactive waste is lethal and must be strictly overseen. She noted that the NRC staff acknowledged that even a temporary loss of institutional control "would have impacts similar to spent fuel storage accidents" and that a permanent loss of control "would be 'a catastrophe to the environment.'"
But the staff decided not to analyze or effectively address these possibilities in the GEIS.
Macfarlane also said that the GEIS should be a living document − revised every 10 years to take into account changing circumstances. And Macfarlane pointed out that when waste is stored on-site, as the GEIS essentially presumes, the costs are borne by the utilities. The Nuclear Waste Fund, which currently is blocked from receiving more funds by the Department of Energy, goes for a permanent repository and is far short of anticipated costs in any event. Macfarlane wrote that while "funding near-term storage is not a crisis," the NRC, and the GEIS, should recognize the "genuine reality" that the federal government − i.e. taxpayers − will pay for the long-term storage of radioactive waste.
Every proposed permanent US dumpsite has been seriously flawed. The formerly proposed nuclear dump at Yucca Mountain would leak much faster than would meet even lax safety standards. Many have recently promoted the theoretical concept of expanding the mission for WIPP (the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant) nuclear weapons waste deep geological repository in New Mexico to take civilian highly radioactive wastes; this proposal is clearly technically flawed and, given the recent fire and leaks at site, make it questionable it can even continue for that waste let alone adding more.
NRC 'waste confidence' decision:
NRC order on resuming licensing activities:
NRC press release:
Nuclear Information and Resource Service statement: