Defense

Shutdown May Further Delay Nuclear Power Plant Approvals

Georgia's Vogtle Electric Generating Plant is a nuclear facility.

Georgia's Vogtle Electric Generating Plant is a nuclear facility. // Denton Rumsey/Shutterstock.com

Nuclear power plant licensing decisions -- already delayed by a 2012 court ruling -- could be pushed back further by the federal government shutdown, Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said this week.

If Congress does not approve funding to run the federal government by Friday, the NRC likely will have to reschedule a series of meetings that kicked off this week on a proposed new “waste confidence” rule that is meant to address the ruling, Keith McConnell, head of the NRC waste confidence directorate, said Tuesday.

Most of the federal government shut down on Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2014, because Democrats and Republicans in Congress cannot agree on a temporary funding bill. Democrats are rejecting GOP attempts include in the budget a repeal of the health-care reform law Congress approved in 2010.

Last year, a federal appeals court sided with the states of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, which argued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wrongly assumed spent reactor fuel eventually would move to a permanent waste repository, even though the Obama administration canceled the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada.

The court ruled in New York v. NRC that the commission must examine the potential consequences of fires in spent fuel pools -- where much of the waste currently is stored. Critics have argued the pools are vulnerable to terrorist attacks given that they are located outside reactors’ containment structures, and in some cases in an elevated area they claim is more susceptible to air attacks.

In response to the ruling, the commission on Sept. 13 proposed a new “waste confidence” rule that it claims addresses the court’s concerns. Between now and Nov. 27, NRC staff planned to collect public comments on the new proposal, including by hosting a series of public meetings throughout the country.

Many of the meetings, which began this week, could have to be rescheduled if Congress does not appropriate funds by Friday, McConnell said Tuesday. As a result, the public-comment deadline, and consequently the commission’s final decision on the matter, also could be pushed back. Prior to the shutdown, the decision was expected by September 2014.

“Our objective is to allow for ample opportunity for public comment so we’ll have to revisit,” the schedule, McConnell told Global Security Newswire. “If we do get an appropriation [from Congress for fiscal 2014] this week then there is no impact at all…If we don’t then we’re going to have to look at what we need to do make sure we achieve that goal” of ample opportunity for public comment.

As it is, the commission has already directed its staff not to issue any final decisions pertaining to the relicensing of existing plants or approval of proposed new facilities until the waste-confidence issue is resolved. License reviews could continue up until the point of making a final decision under that order, but if the government shutdown extends beyond Friday, even that work could come to a halt, NRC spokesman David McIntyre told GSN Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the commission’s approach to addressing the 2012 court ruling is under fire. In May, the same group of states that prevailed in the case filed a petition with the commission arguing that the scope of the new review of the impacts of leaving the waste at plant sites is not as broad as the court mandated.

The petition said NRC staff refused to consider the possibility of forbidding the creation of more waste until a repository is constructed -- an option the states said the court “explicitly recognized to be reasonable.” Commission staff also declined to look at the potential for requiring plant operators to move spent fuel that has already been cooling in pools for more than five years into dry cask storage units that the states argue are more secure, the document said.

The commission in July decided to continue the rulemaking proceedings and not respond the states’ petition in a separate forum. Kyle Landis-Marinello, assistant attorney general for Vermont, told GSN Wednesday that the states still have the same concerns they raised in May.

During a public meeting at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md., Tuesday, commission staff also faced criticism from activist groups and a former NRC employee.

Janet Phelan Kotra, who worked for the commission for more than 28 years and served as project manager for the waste confidence issue for 14 years, said the proposed new rule is improperly based on the idea that the commission has confidence in the safety of long-term storage at reactor sites rather than on confidence that a permanent repository will become available in a reasonable time frame.

Kotra said she did not question whether a permanent repository was technically feasible, but argued the commission in the proposed rule does not address whether it is politically realistic given the history of the Yucca Mountain project.

“NRC is dodging the question the public most cares about when it says disposal will become available ‘when necessary,’” Kotra said.

Diane D’Arrigo, of the watchdog group Nuclear Information and Resource Service, suggested it was disingenuous for the commission to say it has confidence in safe long-term storage of nuclear waste at the same time it is recommending that strict EPA cleanup rules should not be applied in the event of a nuclear incident. Some state and EPA officials wanted the new response guide the agency issue in April to include a statement saying those rules would be adhered to, but NRC and other government officials opposed such language, she noted.

The government shutdown itself calls into question the commission’s ability to ensure safe storage, D’Arrigo argued.

“The shutdown of the government is an indication that it can’t be trusted to have institutional controls over radioactive materials for as long as they remain dangerous,” D’Arrigo said. “It seems incredible to me that the NRC is seriously talking about being able to afford and have institutional controls indefinitely.”

Industry representatives meanwhile argued the new rule addresses all the issues raised by the court and in some cases goes further than necessary. Tim Matthews, an attorney who represents nuclear utilities for the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Baucus, said the new rule “overstates the environmental impacts of used fuel storage” by assuming waste would have to be repackaged in new casks every 100 years.

Matthews urged the commission to resume licensing proceedings that had been delayed because of the waste confidence issue as quickly as possible.

(Image via Denton Rumsey / Shutterstock.com)

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