Shutdown Could Further Delay NRC Approvals for Nuclear Power Plants

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 2, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — Nuc­le­ar power plant li­cens­ing de­cisions — already delayed by a 2012 court rul­ing — could be pushed back fur­ther by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut­down, NRC of­fi­cials said this week.

If Con­gress does not ap­prove fund­ing to run the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment by Fri­day, the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion likely will have to res­ched­ule a series of meet­ings that kicked off this week on a pro­posed new “waste con­fid­ence” rule that is meant to ad­dress the rul­ing, Keith Mc­Con­nell, head of the NRC waste con­fid­ence dir­ect­or­ate, said Tues­day.

Most of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut down on Oct. 1, the start of fisc­al 2014, be­cause Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress can­not agree on a tem­por­ary fund­ing bill. Demo­crats are re­ject­ing GOP at­tempts in­clude in the budget a re­peal of the health-care re­form law Con­gress ap­proved in 2010.

Last year, a fed­er­al ap­peals court sided with the states of New York, Con­necti­c­ut, Mas­sachu­setts and Ver­mont, which ar­gued the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion wrongly as­sumed spent re­act­or fuel even­tu­ally would move to a per­man­ent waste re­pos­it­ory, even though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can­celed the Yucca Moun­tain pro­ject in Nevada.

The court ruled in New York v. NRC that the com­mis­sion must ex­am­ine the po­ten­tial con­sequences of fires in spent fuel pools — where much of the waste cur­rently is stored. Crit­ics have ar­gued the pools are vul­ner­able to ter­ror­ist at­tacks giv­en that they are loc­ated out­side re­act­ors’ con­tain­ment struc­tures, and in some cases in an el­ev­ated area they claim is more sus­cept­ible to air at­tacks.

In re­sponse to the rul­ing, the com­mis­sion on Sept. 13 pro­posed a new “waste con­fid­ence” rule that it claims ad­dresses the court’s con­cerns. Between now and Nov. 27, NRC staff planned to col­lect pub­lic com­ments on the new pro­pos­al, in­clud­ing by host­ing a series of pub­lic meet­ings throughout the coun­try.

Many of the meet­ings, which began this week, could have to be res­ched­uled if Con­gress does not ap­pro­pri­ate funds by Fri­day, Keith Mc­Con­nell, head of the NRC waste con­fid­ence dir­ect­or­ate said Tues­day. As a res­ult, the pub­lic-com­ment dead­line, and con­sequently the com­mis­sion’s fi­nal de­cision on the mat­ter also could be pushed back. Pri­or to the shut­down — which star­ted Tues­day, the first day of fisc­al 2014 — the de­cision was ex­pec­ted by Septem­ber 2014.

“Our ob­ject­ive is to al­low for ample op­por­tun­ity for pub­lic com­ment so we’ll have to re­vis­it,” the sched­ule, Mc­Con­nell told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “If we do get an ap­pro­pri­ation [from Con­gress for fisc­al 2014] this week then there is no im­pact at all…If we don’t then we’re go­ing to have to look at what we need to do make sure we achieve that goal” of ample op­por­tun­ity for pub­lic com­ment.

As it is, the com­mis­sion has already dir­ec­ted its staff not to is­sue any fi­nal de­cisions per­tain­ing to the reli­cens­ing of ex­ist­ing plants or ap­prov­al of pro­posed new fa­cil­it­ies un­til the waste-con­fid­ence is­sue is re­solved. Li­cense re­views could con­tin­ue up un­til the point of mak­ing a fi­nal de­cision un­der that or­der, but if the gov­ern­ment shut­down ex­tends bey­ond Fri­day, even that work could come to a halt, NRC spokes­man Dav­id McIntyre told GSN Wed­nes­day.

Mean­while, the com­mis­sion’s ap­proach to ad­dress­ing the 2012 court rul­ing is un­der fire. In May, the same group of states that pre­vailed in the case filed a pe­ti­tion with the com­mis­sion ar­guing that the scope of the new re­view of the im­pacts of leav­ing the waste at plant sites is not as broad as the court man­dated.

The pe­ti­tion said NRC staff re­fused to con­sider the pos­sib­il­ity of for­bid­ding the cre­ation of more waste un­til a re­pos­it­ory is con­struc­ted — an op­tion the states said the court “ex­pli­citly re­cog­nized to be reas­on­able.” Com­mis­sion staff also de­clined to look at the po­ten­tial for re­quir­ing plant op­er­at­ors to move spent fuel that has already been cool­ing in pools for more than five years in­to dry cask stor­age units that the states ar­gue are more se­cure, the doc­u­ment said.

The com­mis­sion in Ju­ly de­cided to con­tin­ue the rule­mak­ing pro­ceed­ings and not re­spond the states’ pe­ti­tion in a sep­ar­ate for­um. Kyle Land­is-Mar­inello, as­sist­ant at­tor­ney gen­er­al for Ver­mont, told GSN Wed­nes­day that the states still have the same con­cerns they raised in May.

Dur­ing a pub­lic meet­ing at NRC headquar­ters in Rock­ville, Md., Tues­day, com­mis­sion staff also faced cri­ti­cism from act­iv­ist groups and a former NRC em­ploy­ee.

Janet Phelan Ko­tra, who worked for the com­mis­sion for more than 28 years and served as pro­ject man­ager for the waste con­fid­ence is­sue for 14 years, said the pro­posed new rule is im­prop­erly based on the idea that the com­mis­sion has con­fid­ence in the safety of long-term stor­age at re­act­or sites rather than on con­fid­ence that a per­man­ent re­pos­it­ory will be­come avail­able in a reas­on­able time frame.

Ko­tra said she did not ques­tion wheth­er a per­man­ent re­pos­it­ory was tech­nic­ally feas­ible, but ar­gued the com­mis­sion in the pro­posed rule does not ad­dress wheth­er it is polit­ic­ally real­ist­ic giv­en the his­tory of the Yucca Moun­tain pro­ject.

“NRC is dodging the ques­tion the pub­lic most cares about when it says dis­pos­al will be­come avail­able ‘when ne­ces­sary,’” Ko­tra said.

Di­ane D’Ar­rigo, of the watch­dog group Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion and Re­source Ser­vice, sug­ges­ted it was disin­genu­ous for the com­mis­sion to say it has con­fid­ence in safe long-term stor­age of nuc­le­ar waste at the same time it is re­com­mend­ing that strict EPA cleanup rules should not be ap­plied in the event of a nuc­le­ar in­cid­ent. Some state and EPA of­fi­cials wanted the new re­sponse guide the agency is­sue in April to in­clude a state­ment say­ing those rules would be ad­hered to, but NRC and oth­er gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials op­posed such lan­guage, she noted.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down it­self calls in­to ques­tion the com­mis­sion’s abil­ity to en­sure safe stor­age, D’Ar­rigo ar­gued.

“The shut­down of the gov­ern­ment is an in­dic­a­tion that it can’t be trus­ted to have in­tu­ition­al con­trols over ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als for as long as they re­main dan­ger­ous,” D’Ar­rigo said. “It seems in­cred­ible to me that the NRC is ser­i­ously talk­ing about be­ing able to af­ford and have in­sti­tu­tion­al con­trols in­def­in­itely.”

In­dustry rep­res­ent­at­ives mean­while ar­gued the new rule ad­dresses all the is­sues raised by the court and in some cases goes fur­ther than ne­ces­sary. Tim Mat­thews, an at­tor­ney who rep­res­ents nuc­le­ar util­it­ies for the law firm Mor­gan, Lewis and Baucus, said the new rule “over­states the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pacts of used fuel stor­age” by as­sum­ing waste would have to be re­pack­aged in new casks every 100 years.

Mat­thews urged the com­mis­sion to re­sume to li­cens­ing pro­ceed­ings that had been delayed be­cause of the waste con­fid­ence is­sue as quickly as pos­sible.

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