Why is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seemingly rushing its critical vote on its new radioactive waste policy? This isn’t just routine Commission business. It’s a key vote that will clear the way for resumption of licensing activities for both new reactors and license renewals.
The issue arises because controversial NRC Commissioner William Magwood’s last day on the NRC is August 31. Yet the Commission has tentatively scheduled this vote for August 26–even though it wasn’t expected until October. 34 environmental and clean energy organizations have repeatedly pressed the case that Magwood, who is leaving for a job as chief of Europe’s Nuclear Energy Agency–a body that promotes rather than regulates nuclear power–faces a serious conflict of interest.
The NRC is a regulatory body; it is prohibited from promoting nuclear power. Magwood is thumbing his nose not only at his critics, but at the entire concept of separating regulation and promotion. For background on the Magwood controversy, see GreenWorld here and here.
The real question is: why is the rest of the NRC apparently letting him get away with it?
In 2012, a federal court threw out the NRC’s “waste confidence” rule. That rule formed the underpinning for all NRC licensing decisions; it basically stated that the NRC had confidence that radioactive waste would always be stored or disposed of safely–despite the fact that no permanent solution for radioactive waste storage has been found and the only permanent waste project so far proposed and investigated–Yucca Mountain, Nevada–was ended by President Obama in 2009.
The court found that with no alternative to Yucca in place, the NRC could not be “confident” of permanent disposal. Moreover, the court ruled that the NRC had no technical basis for asserting that current on-site storage practices in fuel pools and dry casks would be safe for the indefinite future. This ruling forced the current moratorium on licensing.
Since then, the NRC has been rewriting its rule (and dropping the “waste confidence” name entirely). Hearings–many packed with concerned people–were held across the country. The NRC received some 30,000 comments on its proposal. For background on the hearings and the issues raised in them and the comments, go to the Waste Confidence page on NIRS’ website.
Dismayingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the NRC’s proposal–the one that will be voted on–comes to the same conclusion as its previous rule: when it comes to radioactive waste, don’t worry, be happy. Everything will be just hunky-dory.
Commissioner Magwood is expected to enthusiastically support this new rule.
We don’t, of course, know how the NRC will vote. Right now, there are only four Commissioners in office (Commissioner Apostalakis’ term ended June 30). A conceivable (though perhaps unlikely) 2-1 vote against the proposal could become a 2-2 tie with Magwood’s vote in favor. How would that benefit the Commission?
Even more importantly, how would that benefit the public?
Without Magwood, the vote will be either 3-0 or 2-1, on one side or the other. With Magwood, it could become 4-0, 3-1, or 2-2. In the first two cases, Magwood’s vote would be unnecessary. In the last case, it would be highly disruptive and lead to even less public trust in the NRC than the pitiful level that exists now.
So, once again, why is the NRC scheduling a vote seemingly for the benefit of Magwood, and not the Commission itself or the public?
That’s why those 34 organizations yesterday sent a letter to the NRC urging it to postpone the vote until after Magwood has left the NRC. It’s just common sense. Establishment of a new radioactive waste policy and resuming licensing of nuclear reactors is a major step for the agency, and the public. Such an action shouldn’t be subject to the enormous cloud of suspicion and distrust that will inevitably result from a rushed vote.
We should note that even assuming the NRC votes to move ahead with its new–and from a technical basis highly flawed–proposal, that’s not likely to be the end of the matter. Expect lawsuits and much more activity on the issue in the coming weeks and months.
August 22, 2014
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