NRC suspends final licensing decisions

08 August 2012

Licences for US nuclear plants - including those for new construction and life extension - will not be issued until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) addresses a court decision on waste confidence. However, licensing activities will continue as normal.

On 8 June, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC's rules for the temporary storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste stood in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. This requires that either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement be prepared for all major government agency actions.

"In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.

This determination extends just to final licence issuance; all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward."

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

The court  found that the NRC's 2010 update to the Waste Confidence Decision - which allows for the temporary storage of used nuclear fuel on-site at nuclear power plant even after licence expiry - could not provide sufficient guarantee that a final waste repository would be ready "when necessary", or indeed ever built at all. It further found that the NRC had failed "to properly examine the future dangers and key consequences" of storing fuel on nuclear sites for up to 60 years after licence expiration. 

Regarding the development of a waste facility, the court noted that 20 years of work towards building a repository was effectively abandoned when the Department of Energy withdrew its application for the Yucca Mountain repository in 2010, and that, "At this time there is not even a prospective site for a repository, let alone progress towards the actual construction of one."

The NRC has yet to determine whether it will appeal the decision or how it will respond. It was immediately flooded with essentially identical petitions from anti-nuclear groups demanding a halt to the issuing of  individual plant licences based on the decision. The petition further demanded that any environmental assessment or impact statement to come out of the decision be accompanied by a "reasonable opportunity for public comment", and "that a period of at least 60 days be allowed for raising site-specific concerns relating to the remanded proceedings in individual licensing proceedings."

In a letter to operators dated 25 June, the agency staff agreed that the court decision meant that it was now obliged to halt the issue of licences but also noted that no licensing decisions were "imminent." The NRC  has now issued an official memorandum and order to this effect. Regarding the petition's other two points, the NRC provided assurance that time would be afforded for public comment during any possible future environmental assessment; however given the "special circumstances" of the case the agency has decided that all site-specific contentions related to the decision will be put on temporary hold pending their further order.

The order stated, "Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal. Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action. But, in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed. This determination extends just to final licence issuance; all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward."

NRC staff do not foresee the need to alter their review schedules. In addition, the directive of timely renewal means that any plants facing licensing deadlines as a result of the suspension will be allowed to continue operating as long as they submitted their application in time.

The US industry has yet to respond to the news. Efforts have recently been focussed on appealling the NRC's decision to stop work on Yucca Mountain. Washington DC-based trade organization the Nuclear Energy Institute expressed disappointment last week when this case was put on hold pending the finalization of fiscal 2013 funding appropriations, a process which could take up to four months.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News

Filed under: Regulation, Plant licensing, USA