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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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Comment Preferences

  •  One small step in the right direction. Thank you (11+ / 0-)

    joieau. It is always informing (if not pleasurable) to read your diaries on the subject.

    if a habitat is flooded, the improvement for target fishes increases by an infinite percentage...because a habitat suitability index that is even a tiny fraction of 1 is still infinitely higher than zero, which is the suitability of dry land to fishes.

    by mrsgoo on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 12:54:19 PM PDT

    •  Thank you, mrsgoo! (9+ / 0-)

      Now maybe we will be offered a golden opportunity to pressure the government to suspend all the license extensions issued over the past few years as well, since all of those plants are in violation of NEPA because the government is in violation of NEPA.

      I think it's interesting that the power industry is balking at new rules NRC has suggested for increasing on-site dry-cask storage. In the event of earthquakes, floods, bad weather, grid blackouts, etc., their cram packed spent fuel pools are as much a danger as the spent fuel pools at Fukushima Daiichi. And putting more of it in expensive dry casks won't really help. I mean, here we are after 16 months and the NRC still hasn't drafted, approved and/or implemented new rules requiring plants to provide emergency power to their spent fuel pool circulation pumps. How ridiculous is that?

  •  Here in so cal, SONGS is still not online and (7+ / 0-)

    there are some interesting thoughts being put forward, including an immediate cut ($54 million/month... yes, this is too cheap to meter!) to ratepayers given the plants have been down since Feb. due to unusual wear of new parts. CA's public untility commission is making the recommendations though by law, they HAVE to do this IF the plants are not online nine months AFTER they close. (see article here)

    The OTHER interesting thing--and this really IS interesting--is that during the last several weeks of very intense heat, there has not been one rolling outage, etc. They are asking for flex usage (wash, dry and use utilities after 6pm, keep the house temp a bit higher during the day). What this shows is that we CAN do without them, something that has been hotly debated.

    The waste issue has ALWAYS been the clog int he nuclear pipe, so to speak. The mere expense of nuclear and thousands of years of storage and maintenance is absurd. Yes, we have to deal with what we have created at some point, but we do NOT have to deal with more.

    Shut em down!

    202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

    by cany on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 01:05:31 PM PDT

    •  Also, here's a NY Times article which, in part, (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Joieau, radical simplicity, Jim P

      addresses some of the above I mentioned.


      202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

      by cany on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 01:11:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You are right as rain. (9+ / 0-)

        Not only are nuclear plants vulnerable to climate change when the water gets too hot to cool them during heat waves, they are also greedy water-hogs. And that isn't going to be feasible ESPECIALLY in any area of the southwest that gets water from the Colorado watershed. These use way, way more water than all the desert golf courses put together, and we all know those desert golf courses are unsustainable as the water levels and aquifers drop.

        You also touch on the real kicker the Japanese people have learned about nukes over these last 16 months - nukes sound really big and impressive with their bragged-upon megawatt capacities, but they consume so much grid energy just to keep going that other electricity consumers get only half or less of those 'trons. Japan made it through last year without any nukes at all, and are busy at installing renewables and new gas plant capacity enough to keep them all shut down forever. Solar and kinetic sources of energy do not consume vast amounts of water, and work just fine when it's hot and dry.

        •  Millstone In CT Limited By Heat (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Joieau, DawnN, cany

          I just heard on the radio that the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant located in southern CT had to be limited in output because the Long Island Sound was running warmer than normal.  The plant was rated for coolant water of 75 deg F and this summer's heat waves have raised the Sound's waters to almost 2 degrees warmer than that.  Anyone who is familiar with Long Island Sound will tell you that historically it runs cooler than the Atlantic just on the other side of Long Island.  This is not a good omen.

          "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

          by PrahaPartizan on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 05:04:21 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  intense heat only by San Diego standards (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      The OTHER interesting thing--and this really IS interesting--is that during the last several weeks of very intense heat, there has not been one rolling outage, etc. They are asking for flex usage (wash, dry and use utilities after 6pm, keep the house temp a bit higher during the day). What this shows is that we CAN do without them, something that has been hotly debated.
      High 70s is heat wave temperature down here, but it's average-to-cool for August in most of the rest of the country, even without global warming.  We also don't have the humidity to deal with, which is another reason people use AC.

      To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

      by Visceral on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 01:46:38 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Forgive me, but I AM a SCE/Songs consumer. I live (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Joieau, Jim P

        in central east Orange County where it has been between 92 and 104 for the last 14 days.

        You must be close to the coast. We aren't. Hotter than hell here. I just got home an hour ago and it was 92. That means peak heat was higher (I just looked) at 95.

        I want you to think about something.

        SCE provides rebates for energy efficient lighting and appliances. They do NOT cover the much higher efficiency LED lighting which is much more energy expensive.

        Through efficiency, I went from average $120/month bill 12 years ago to $33-$40/month which includes KWh increases over those years.

        I am looking at my May bill right now, and I am picking May because it is a neutral month:

        May 2010 18.83 kWh
        May 2011 16.00 kWh
        May 2012 12.34 kWh ($35.06)

        That drop you see is retrofitting energy efficient lighting to CFL bulbs and replacing an older washer and television (LCD, 22" replacing my 10-yo Sanyo). I bought an LCD TV that has a great pic, on sale and is one of the highest efficiency made in America TVs. My home is all electric or I would have on demand water heaters. I will soon be replacing my refrigerator and dryer (dryer is 25 years old and God knows how old the frige is... it has a "Save Hetch Hetchy Sierra Club sticker on the side tracing it back to at least 1987. And yes, it's harvest gold, dented and a mess. I got it when mine went out from a friend that used it for a keg refrigerator. Working in a pinch until my kitchen is done. Probably the least efficient thing in the house.

        I could do better. I want to replace my lighting with LED lighting. (comparison chart here, ymmv) but as you can see, they are expensive, but they are more efficient.

        So WHY doesn't SCE underwrite these costs, too, with that $54 million/month which would help considerably. Why isn't SCE underwriting solar panels on homes that get suitable sun with that $54 million/month.

        As Joieau explained, we don't get the full MW out of the plant. Much is used BY the plant. So add that used power back in and spend the damned money on efficiency.

        Right now, consumers have underwritten $54 million X 6 months outage. That's $324 for something that ISN'T even producing energy that COULD be going to rebates for  efficiency. That is $648 million/year up front, not counting the savings of not having to purchase more energy from other sources.

        We didn't want this damn plant, still don't want it, didn't and don't trust it and are sick and tired of paying for it.

        So there.

        202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

        by cany on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 06:48:34 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  They're probably going to order the NRC... (0+ / 0-) go ahead with the work anyway.

    In a 2-1 decision, the court said it would give Congress until Dec. 14 to clarify whether it will appropriate more money for the study or order that no additional money be spent. Given Congress’ refusal to do anything definitive on the Yucca Mountain issue, it wouldn’t be surprising if the deadline passed without action. If it does, there’s every indication that the NRC will be ordered to move forward with its evaluation.

    The Administration has absolutely no legal basis to block Yucca Mountain. Congress possesses the ultimate authority and has already acted (repeatedly) on the issue.

    In my opinion, they're playing games with people's lives in an act of blatant political favoritism.

    •  Well, sure they do. (5+ / 0-)

      Given that the NRC's 10,000 year study got shot down because Congress went with the NAS recommendation for 300,000 years, and NRC couldn't do 300,000 years because the geology of the site wouldn't support it.

      This is just another court ruling, and there have been dozens of those over the years and many lawsuits by the State of Nevada, which didn't want to become a 'National Sacrifice Zone' in the first place. Besides, it was DOE's baby all along, and its own EIS's on the site were embarrassing.

      Since there are so many state and federal laws that must be satisfied for something like this - including railroad regulatory agencies DOE completely ignored when developing its dumb-assed transportation plans - that this cancelled project can keep judges in busy-work for centuries into the future. Meanwhile, no spent fuel or Cold War waste gets transported across the country to be stashed underneath a mountain subject to seismic disruption and salt water flooding.

      Calling it "an act of blatant political favoritism" doesn't change any laws in D.C. or in Nevada. Nor does it cause the several competing sets of laws to jibe enough to pull it off. And it certainly doesn't make a 10,000 year EIS from the NRC compliant with NEPA even if they could be forced and it wasn't a total waste of money during a deep recession. But you could consider voting for Romney/Ryan in the fervent hope that they will declare themselves dictators for life with familial succession and do away with laws, regulations and courts altogether.

      I'd just as soon see nukes stop creating this crap, require the industry to dry cask its accumulated filth on a reasonable timetable, and invest what little wealth the oligarchs haven't already taken from us in renewable sources of energy for the future.

    •  Crap. Separation of Powers. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Joieau, cany, Jim P

      Congress can't force the executive to act on Yucca Mt.

      look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

      by FishOutofWater on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 03:14:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Many nuclear power plants are located on the ocean (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joieau, cany

    Do you think that rising seas will impact on the existing storage at these facilities?

    I fall down, I get up, I keep dancing.

    by DamselleFly on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 02:22:56 PM PDT

    •  Look at the photo of the plant at the link I (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      included in my post above. It doesn't even pass the laugh test in terms of tsunami problems, and the plant sits on an earthquake fault a subject that is being re-reviewed post Fukushima. I stopped surfing there when the damned plant was built. For good reason.

      I just want the damn thing closed and the rods casked (at least those cool enough to do so) until we figure out something better for the waste. However, I will actively oppose ALL waste sites, high level, mixed, so-called low level and transuranic until every damn plant is closed.

      We created a mess and WE--THOSE OF US HERE NOW--need to cut it out. We need to fix what we broke.


      202-224-3121 to Congress in D.C. USE it! You can tell how big a person is by what it takes to discourage them. "We're not perfect, but they're nuts."--Barney Frank 01/02/2012

      by cany on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 06:58:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This is very confusing: why is the Law suddenly (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Joieau, Bisbonian, DawnN, cany

    relevant to political decisions in the US? Especially in regards to the public's interest.

    How long will this law-loving, anti-nuke crackpot stay as Chair of the NRC? Surely there's someone on the Commission who will cry to someone in Congress and get this unsettling trend reversed.

    The Internet is just the tail of the Corporate Media dog.

    by Jim P on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 02:25:55 PM PDT

    •  Heh. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jim P, DawnN, davehouck, cany

      They wanted to get rid of Jaczko, and succeeded. I get the feeling they won't be any more fond of Macfarlane.

      Even the industry admits there's no future in nukes anymore. The holding companies and suppliers (like GE, et al.) are investing in renewables and natural gas plants. Gas isn't going to be any more sustainable than nukes in the long run, but it's a fair stopgap so we can get rid of the much dirtier coal plants (as well as nukes).

      None of this changes the fact that we're going to need a long term repository someday. Or some other clever way of getting the stuff out of circulation. But that's what they all knew they were going to have to do since the beginning, they've just been putting it off indefinitely with assurances that "we'll think of something someday."

      Someday is here. They all need to pay up their IOUs to the wrap-up and get busy emptying those spent fuel pools into dry casks - which should be good for up to 500 years, anyway. The "National Sacrifice Zones" already exist - they're all over the place. Pick one in each region farthest away from any significant populations and enclose them (built watertight, jet/missile tight and quake-tight to 9.7) to store the region's casks. Then clean up the mess and install some wind turbines to replace those ugly cooling towers!

      •  The economics of mothballing the over-age (6+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        crose, Joieau, Bisbonian, DawnN, davehouck, cany

        nukes is certainly not in any cost calculation I've seen nuke cultists put out. There's another compounding of the storage problem we're supposed to pretend will one day be solved.

        Like they used to say about dinosaurs -- their bodies twitching long after they're dead -- that's all that's going on now with defenders of the business. Nukes are over, the message just hasn't gotten through to the industry's brain and mouth just yet.

        The Internet is just the tail of the Corporate Media dog.

        by Jim P on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 03:52:43 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  They have deferred (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          DawnN, davehouck, cany, Jim P

          the bulk of future costs for more than half a century, and the government has not seen fit to enforce requirements for adequate contributions. They knew these things would need decommissioning. Most are at the end of their original design lifetime right now even NOT taking new geological data (quake risks) into consideration. Cost and schedule overruns at the few new plants they've started are even more severe than they were back in the 70s, and not a single one of our 104 plants ever came in on time or on budget. Not one - it's always been a gigantic scam.

          •  And let's all pretend that brittle fracture (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            isn't a risk, as can be proven by... fortune tellers, since there's no data on what 60 years of high neutron bombardment does to commercial containment vessels.

            Although in Belgium they've stopped pretending. Whether the owners of the other 9 or 10 plants using the same part from the same manufacturer will continue to do so...

            Well, at least for now that decision is on hold.

            The Internet is just the tail of the Corporate Media dog.

            by Jim P on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 07:20:06 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Yea, but (0+ / 0-)

    Those 104 plants steadily crank out about 100,000 megawatts of carbon-free energy.

    I feel that climate change is so pressing, we'd better allow nukes as a energy source until we get to a better percentage of renewables.

    •  Actually, given their (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jim P

      grid demands (it takes up to four train-sized diesels just to run the emergency coolant pumps and instrumentation, everything else gets isolated during a blackout), it's only about half of that. Or put another way, close to 10% of our electricity if they were all operating at 100%. Which all of them never are.

      As of today 12 plants are at 0% power and Fermi 2 is at 68%. The rest are at 92% or above. This is peak demand time, more will go down in the fall for scheduled outages. 12 of 104 is a bit more than 10% of total nuclear capacity down during peak demand. More than a couple of those are unlikely to come back on line any time soon (if at all), and NRC has suspended licensing for the new builds as well as the extensions.

      No plants have yet addressed the new seismic risk data, and none are willing to dry-cask their spent fuel stockpiles - which they'd have to do in order to ship it for storage anyway, so this petulance is purely about how much those casks cost. Which should have been set aside by strict regulation every single year of operation, as it's not like they didn't know they'd have to do something with the shit someday. Even if Congress had a new long term repository to put money into for R&D, it would be decades at the very least before any waste could be put there, and the utilities would STILL balk about the cost of casks. Leaving We the People to foot the bill, of course. That was always The Plan.

      Climate change IS pressing. Nukes are no more "carbon free" than coal or gas through the fuel cycle, and that hasn't even begun to reflect waste transportation and storage yet. Both nukes and coal plants need replacement asap. With some other technology[ies].

      But hey. Some of the heat exchange and generation technology developed for geothermal could surely be modified to grab some megawatts from the waste still in the pools, at least to power much of the casking and decommissioning. Nothing nuclear happens quickly, except for disaster.

  •  However long Yucca Mountain or other such sites (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    might keep the stuff contained, it will do so a hell of a lot longer than the onsite storage sites will.  And by the time it does become a problem again, much of the radioactivity will be gone as the shorter-lived isotopes decay.

    Not shipping the stuff to Yucca Mountain, letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, is just plain insane, even if someday we might want to ship it again somewhere else.

    Quidquid id est, timeo Republicanos et securitatem ferentes.

    by Sura 109 on Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 05:36:29 PM PDT

    •  The whole Yucca idea is (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jim P

      pretty lame, and yes, there are political and legal angles that would still hold it up 'forever' no matter what the DOE and NRC do. It's not a suitable site, we need at LEAST 10,000 years because there's no way we can trust our great-grandchildren or their great-grandchildren to even understand what the danger is and deal properly with it.

      The National Academy of Science found that any site committed for long-term storage given what we know about how civilizations come and go should be good for 300,000 years. And that's the number of years that Congress put into the nuclear long term storage clauses of the law. 10,000 years isn't enough, this stuff is deadly way longer than that, and it'll all be in one place. A made for SciFi channel TV situation right there.

      We can do much better if we put our minds, will and talents into it. Nobody outside the nuclear club will miss nukes when they're gone. And there's plenty of waste management and decommissioning work to be done for so many generations down the line that there will always be honest work for dedicated nukes.

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