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Nuclear Waste Storage Decision Poses Long-Term Public Health Risks

WASHINGTON (August 26, 2014) -- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission today approved a controversial new rule and Environmental Impact Statement regarding nuclear waste that could pose long-term risks to public health and the environment.  

The NRC’s new rule and EIS could allow utilities to keep dangerous radioactive spent fuel in temporary storage at their reactors indefinitely and bar any waste-related licensing challenges. The vote today follows the NRC’s work in response to a federal appeals court ruling, in a suit filed by NRDC and others, that the Commission hadn’t considered in the environmental impacts of the government’s failure to develop a permanent depository for nuclear waste.

Geoffrey Fettus, lead counsel for NRDC in the court case, issued this statement:

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste; the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years. The Commission failed to follow the express directions of the Court.”


In 2011, NRDC and a number of other environmental groups, four states and a Native American community petitioned the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for review of a NRC rulemaking regarding temporary storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste (the Waste Confidence rulemaking -- the Waste Confidence rule was a “finding” that the NRC is “confident” that nuclear waste can be safely managed and disposed of and, thus, the rule barred any challenges to the highly toxic and radioactive waste issues when the agency licensed nuclear power reactors).

On June 8, 2012, the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of petitioners. See New York, et al. v. NRC, 681 F.3d 471 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (hereinafter the “Waste Confidence Decision.”). The Court held the Waste Confidence rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by allowing nuclear power plants to begin operating without an environmental review of the impacts of long-term nuclear waste storage and disposal, as well as the impacts that could result if final disposal options are never established. The opinion was a strong endorsement of NEPA, and a stern rebuke of the agency's derelictions. Within two months of the DC Circuit’s decision, NRC halted all final licensing and relicensing decisions in order to address the Court’s decision and perform the required Environmental Impact Statement under NEPA.

In September 2013 NRC issued its Draft Generic EIS (*which means it applies to all nuclear reactors), theoretically to begin its compliance the Court’s Waste Confidence Decision. NRDC, several states and dozens of other public interest groups commented on NRC’s Draft in late 2013. We noted that the draft Generic EIS failed to comply with the D.C. Circuit’s plain direction, thus violating (again) the National Environmental Policy Act. We stated so again in an appearance before the Commission in March of 2014, and one last time in July of this year.

Today, unfortunately, on a fast track and months before a final product was expected, the four NRC Commissioners approved a final version of the Generic EIS under a new name, “Continued Storage,” and allowing for the resumption of final licensing and relicensing of nuclear power reactors and – yet again, barring any nuclear waste related challenges to that licensing.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

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