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New Chair acts on court ruling NRC NEPA violations

I have noted more than once over the past 16 months that our Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] has been passing out 20-year license extensions to the U.S.'s aging nuclear power reactor fleet as a matter of blanket policy without any evaluations of plant systems and integrity. Thus far, the NRC has not delayed or denied extension for any plant of any design that has requested extension. Worse, the same supposed "watchdog" agency has been routinely approving power upgrade applications as well, allowing aging plants to 'burn' higher enriched fuels which lets them operate at up to 120% of their original design capacity.

It does not take a psychic to predict that this sort of thing will inevitably end badly, perhaps resulting in one or more of our nation's most populous cities becoming a "Dead Zone" due to dangerous levels of radioactive contamination for generations. It may thus be of some comfort to the government of New York State that license renewal for the Indian Point nuke near New York City is the most pressing application that has been stopped by Allison McFarlane's decision on last week to suspend all pending licensing actions. The two Indian Point reactors (#2 and #3) reach the end of their original licensing terms in 2013 and 2015, and the state has vigorously opposed the plan due to earthquake and terrorism risks, based on the extraordinary population density in the facility's danger zone.

Details below the Fleur de Kos…

Reuters reported that the suspension was ordered by recently installed Chair Allison McFarlane - an expert on the subject of nuclear waste - in response to a ruling in June by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the Commission's "waste confidence" provisions and Temporary [Waste] Storage Rule (used to justify those 20-year operating license extensions) violate the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA].

"In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court's remand is appropriately addressed," the order said.
The suspension will affect 8 plant license renewal decisions, 9 applications for new reactor builds, 1 current operating license, and 1 early site permit.

The issue for the court was NRC's failure to conduct and file a comprehensive Environmental Impact study for the Yucca site in Nevada, so that accumulated high level waste could start being transported there from all over the country. The suit was originally brought by Aiken County [South Carolina] to force the government to go forward with the cancelled permanent high level waste storage facility. Aiken County is home to the Savanna River Site, which has served as a "temporary storage" site for tons of detritus from weapons production during the Cold War, and which is getting anxious about there being no permanent facility for that waste or the waste from power reactors in South Carolina.

Aiken County is seeking a court order to force the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to act on a long-pending license application by the U.S. Department of Energy to permanently dispose of high-level waste deep under the [Yucca] mountain.

The regulatory commission argues that it doesn't have the funding to proceed.

And it's true - NRC doesn't have the funding to conduct a 10,000-year Environmental Impact Statement on Yucca, because the Yucca project was cancelled in 2010. President Obama ended the funding that year for the project. The licensing suspension ordered by the NRC is blow-back to the power industry, having to do with on-site spent fuel storage limits. The limits were based on the law authorizing a suitable multi-thousand year repository - which was supposed to have been Yucca. Basically, the industry has hit its limit for high level waste (which represents 95% of the dangerous radioactivity generated by the nuclear fuel cycle start to finish). It's got nowhere to put it and DOE doesn't want it either because its facilities are chock full of their own high level waste.

Spent fuel is currently being stored in overcrowded spent fuel pools and casks at the nation's nuclear power plants. The power industry at current levels generates more than 3,000 tons of high level spent fuel waste every year, all of which is still in pools and casks on site after 40 years of operation. Without a long term repository - good for at least 10,000 years - there's just no future in it. Heck, there's not even a present in it. So there will be no more licensing until and unless that changes.

Meanwhile, Wall Street has already decided there's no future in nukes, even without the high level waste issue. Governments no longer have the money to cover all the hidden costs and subsidize operations, and since Fukushima are acutely aware of the unacceptable social and financial risks of nuclear accidents and nuclear "man made disasters" (what Japan's parliamentary investigation report on Fukushima called that mess). Heck, even General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said just last week that…

"When I talk to the guys who run the oil companies and they say look, they're finding more gas all the time. It's hard to justify nuclear, really hard.

"Gas is so cheap and at some point, really, economics rule," Mr. Immelt said. "So I think some combination of gas, and either wind or solar… that's where we see the most countries around the world going."

In the end we will need to have a long-term high level waste repository (or two, or three), so we can safely sequester and protect the nasty byproducts of humanity's self-destructive love affair with nuclear technology. For as long as possible. Someday that will have to happen, but not before the industry is well and truly dead of strangulation on its own waste. There are probably places that might be feasible, but most definitely NOT in any Louisiana salt domes.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals can't actually order the government to open a 10,000 year high level waste repository at Yucca Mountain, nor can they order the state of Nevada to start accepting shipments of high level waste. They can only rule (ultimately) that storing high level waste on site at power plants and DOE facilities violates the National Environmental Policy Act and the NRC has to do something about that.

On Tuesday of this week NRC's Macfarlane added her voice to pressure the Obama administration and Congress to identify a permanent disposal site for high level nuclear waste…

Macfarlane, a geologist and a former environmental-science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said the commission is assessing a report by its staff on waste-disposal options and promised to act promptly on the proposals. It is also researching an expanded use of dry-cask storage, something the industry opposes. She cited waste disposal, along with improved communication with the public, safety, and geological issues, including earthquake risks, as her top priorities.

"Geology clearly matters," she said today. "If that wasn't the main lesson of Fukushima, I don't know what was."

Perhaps as Macfarlane settles into her new job and gets to know her staff and various project and specialty personnel, she will eventually find out what the actual main lesson(s) of Fukushima have been. Those, unfortunately, don't have much to do with geology, earthquake vulnerabilities or even what to do with tens of thousands of tons of deadly high level nuclear waste (so they can keep on making more). I for one am hoping it doesn't take her too long to figure things out. She could always just pick up a phone and give Greg Jaczko a call. He's got some time these days, and just might be willing to help her understand the commission's true priorities and the dirty politics that come with.
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