WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A federal appeals court’s unanimous decision forces the country to re-evaluate the environmental impacts of the storage and disposal of its nuclear waste in a way that has never been done before.
The decision will send the Nuclear Regulatory Commission back to square one to determine the safety and consequences of allowing nuclear reactors to produce and accumulate radioactive nuclear waste, including the potential environmental effects of the failure to develop a geologic repository.
“This is a game changer,” said Geoff Fettus, senior project attorney in the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This forces the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of producing highly radioactive nuclear waste without a long-term disposal solution. The court found: 'The Commission apparently has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.’”
The court granted petitions for review by the environmental community and the states by vacating the NRC's recent Waste Confidence Decision and the associated Temporary Storage Rule.
Geoff Fettus of NRDC argued the case in March before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, with co-counsel Diane Curran who represented the other environmental petitioners, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Riverkeeper,Inc., and Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.
Meanwhile, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners President David Wright of South Carolina expressed frustration with the government’s handling of nuclear-waste issues and said Congress and the Executive Branch need to put forth workable solutions that do not overburden consumers.
Wright testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety. The hearing focused on the early 2012 report from the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future which proposed a series of recommendations for jump-starting the nation’s stalled nuclear-waste program.
The BRC, appointed by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, recommended reforming the Nuclear Waste Fund, which pays for the program through fees assessed to nuclear utilities and their consumers, and developing a consent-based approach for selecting nuclear-waste repository locations.
While the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 remains the law, NARUC agrees with many of the recommendations. Wright particularly commended the report’s proposals to alter the Nuclear Waste Fund. In fact, doing so is “essential” for most of the BRC’s other recommendations to proceed, he said.
Consent-based siting is also a critical aspect of any new nuclear-waste policy, he said. “Certainly, future siting efforts will have to account for widely divergent demographics/populations as well as unique proposed repository topologies/geologies,” Wright said. “Since 'one-size-certainly-does-not-fit-all' in this context, NARUC agrees that flexibility in approach is a necessary prerequisite to future siting initiatives.”
Still, despite the report and apparent consensus on several key recommendations, unless and until Congress and the Administration put these proposals into law, the nation’s nuclear-waste policy will remain stalled, according to the NARUC.
The BRC report may proclaim that policymakers “know what we have to do; we know we have to do it, and we even know how to do it,” thus far Washington has shown no signs of actually resolving the problem, Wright said. “[O]ur assessment is that there are too many people who are content to pass the problem along to future generations and ‘leave the waste where it is.’ It is fitting for the Commission to call for prompt action developing both consolidated interim storage and beginning the search for a new repository, but we may need public education and outreach to help persuade some who seem to favor the ‘no action’ alternative.”
SOURCE: National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and Natural Resources Defense Council