The Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners today 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 just A-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.
Controversial NRC Commissioner William Magwood, in probably his last official NRC action, didn’t even bother to attend the meeting. Instead he phoned in to a conference line to cast his votes in favor of both actions. Maybe he was at the airport waiting for his flight to Paris where he begins his new job as chief of the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency on Monday. Or maybe he was just packing for the trip….
In a statement on the vote, NIRS’ 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 today 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 ten 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.
The decision on the continued storage rule, including Commissioner comments (although one page of Macfarlane’s dissent is missing at this writing), is here.
The Commission Order on resuming licensing activities is here.
An NRC press release on the votes is here.
August 26, 2014
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