Beyond Nuclear scores win for licensing hearings on nuclear waste management
In response to petitions filed by Beyond Nuclear and twenty-three other environmental organizations to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) affecting a total of 36 reactors in new licensing and re-licensing proceedings, the Commission granted the petitioners’ requests to hold all final licensing decisions in abeyance until the question of what is to be done with the nation’s growing mountain of nuclear waste is resolved. This stunning decision is evidence of serious problems with the nuclear power structure in the U.S. Beyond Nuclear offered the following comments in a nationally distributed joint press release.
On June 18, 2012, Beyond Nuclear and the other organizations filed requests to reopen federal licensing hearings on new reactor construction and old reactor license extensions following the safe energy communities’ victory in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals which struck down the agency’s long standing “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision.” The so-called “confidence rule” had held that the public was denied environmental impact hearings on continued nuclear waste generation from new reactor construction and 20-year license extensions on expiring 40-year operating licenses in the absence of a scientifically-accepted and license-approved nuclear waste management plan. The federal regulatory agency responsible for licensing these essentially nuclear waste factories held that it had “confidence” that someday, somewhere, somebody would come up with an acceptable plan. In particular, the June 8, 2012 federal court ruling struck down the agency denial of public hearings based on NRC “assurance” that approval of a long term geological repository for high-level radioactive waste would be available “when necessary” and that high-level nuclear waste (tens of thousands of tons of irradiated nuclear fuel) can be stored indefinitely in temporary water-filled pools or in combination with onsite and offsite dry storage casks.
The August 7, 2012 NRC Order essentially accepts all of the petitioners’ requests to: 1) suspend any final decisions in reactor licensing cases, pending completion of action on the remanded Waste Confidence proceeding; 2) provide opportunity for public comment under the National Environmental Policy Act in Environmental Assessment and Environment Impact Statements and; 3) provide at least 60 days for public interventions in individual licensing cases of any site specific concerns relating to the remanded nuclear waste proceedings.
A local organization I co-founded, the BEST Chapter of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League based in North Carolina, joined in the Beyond Nuclear petitions with substantive testimony of its own at the NRC hearing described above. Our group was formed mainly to consider TVA plans to bring an old cancelled nuclear power plant near Scottsboro Alabama (49 miles from our house in Chattanooga) into service. TVA is deep in debt to the U.S. government (us) over problems with its fleet of existing nuclear power plants and new ones it has planned as part of a recent wave of new applications that started before the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Related to this is the nuclear industry’s desire (of course?) to bring the cancelled Yucca Mountain federal nuclear waste repository back into consideration. These nuke plants generate highly radioactive “spent fuel” and other nuclear wastes that have very long half-lives (half the time for the radioactivity of the materials to decay to very low levels) that no one wants near them and no one knows what to do with. Currently they are in many cases being stored, much like was done at Fukushima, in water tanks sitting on top of the nuclear reactors, not in the containment vessel, but covered only by a sheet metal roof or something equally flimsy. So here’s another related announcement:
Yucca Mountain dump: zombie back from the dead?!
In addition to being scientifically unsuitable for high-level radioactive waste disposal*, Yucca Mountain is sacred, and belongs to the Western Shoshone Indian Nation by treaty rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second highest court in the land just below the U.S. Supreme Court, indicated in a six page ruling on Friday, as reported by the New York Times, that, whether or not Congress appropriates the needed funds, it will order the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to resume the licensing proceeding for the proposed high-level radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.
The Obama administration moved to cancel the Yucca Mountain dump proposal upon taking office, the fulfillment of a campaign pledge to Nevadans. Energy Secretary Chu moved to withdraw the license application from the proceeding already under way at NRC, and to zero out the budget for the project. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has devoted his political career to stopping the dump ever since being on the receiving end of the “Screw Nevada Bill” in 1987 as a rookie Senator, has ensured that $0.00 has been appropriated toward the dump since 2010.
Another wild card in this high stakes poker game? The recently confirmed NRC chairwoman, Dr. Allison Macfarlane, a geologist, literally wrote (well, edited) the book on why Yucca is scientifically unsuitable as a geologic repository for high-level radioactive waste. It is entitled Uncertainty Underground.
*Curious story: It seems that prior to actually using the large hole the feds dug under Yucca Mountain about 100 miles NW of Las Vegas, the scientists, geologists, and engineers involved figured they should put some burial casks in the mountain like would be used for the nuclear waste, instrument it, run the wires out, seal the chamber tight, and monitor for a few years. After a while, I’m not sure how long, many months I think, as reported in Science Magazine, the data stopped coming out of the trial repository. They had no choice but to dig back in and find out what had gone wrong. When they got there, they discovered the instruments soaked in water and shorted out. This was in spite of many concerns that ground water might leak into the chambers and cause trouble followed by strong assurances by the powers that be that the site was chosen partly for its dryness and the lack of nearby ground water and that water leakage into the site just couldn’t happen. At least somebody had the foresight to try it out for a while before burying radioactive wastes there permanently.
For more on the Yucca Mountain test site, see: