Nuclear Energy, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament

The development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is firmly linked to the development of nuclear weapons. NRDC's Nuclear Program works to reduce the risk to people and the environment from both civil and military applications of nuclear energy. Today's nuclear dangers arise from the still vast nuclear weapons arsenals of the US and Russia, the emergence of new nuclear weapons states and regional nuclear arms races, the proliferation of nuclear weapons potential to additional countries and terrorist groups, and the safety, security, and environmental challenges posed by nuclear power expansion in an era of accelerating climate change. The NRDC Nuclear Program employs technical analysis, litigation, and public policy advocacy to identify and accomplish concrete steps toward our nuclear safety and security goals.

Protecting Western U.S. Groundwater from the Impacts of Uranium Mining

uranium mine

Uranium mining poses environmental, economic, and societal risks. Companies are showing renewed interest in recovering uranium that lies beneath the iconic landscapes and fragile ecosystems of the American West. The majority of today's uranium mines are "in-situ leach" (ISL) solution mines, which typically have hundreds of wells, diesel-powered pumps, and use very large volumes of groundwater to dissolve the uranium from the ore-bearing rock within underground aquifers, and bring the uranium to the surface.

The NRDC Nuclear Program has joined with the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming to challenge the failure of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to fully consider the harmful environmental impacts of granting a license for uranium ISL recovery operations in northeast Wyoming. In parallel with this litigation, we are advocating the issuance of revised U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for uranium mining that would strengthen public health protections against the contamination caused by past and present uranium operations.

» NRDC's Report: Nuclear Fuel's Dirty Beginnings
» NRDC Nuclear Program Senior Attorney Geoff Fettus' blog: Uranium Mining Environmental Consequences to Be Reviewed in Court

Strengthening Nuclear Arms Control

nuclear weapons

Although the Cold War ended more than two decades ago, the United States and Russia continue to maintain active military nuclear stockpiles of about 4,500 to 5,000 warheads and bombs, with about 900 warheads on each side, ready to launch within minutes. The U.S. and Russia continue to operate and improve massive research and production complexes dedicated to maintaining, replacing, and "modernizing" their nuclear weapon stockpiles and delivery systems.

U.S. and Russian alert nuclear forces vastly exceed any current or foreseeable need to ensure continued mutual deterrence of nuclear attack, undercut international efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in other nations' national security strategies, and constitute an autonomous source of nuclear danger in their own right. These nuclear alert levels are sustained by a circular logic, whereby a portion of U.S. nuclear forces is kept ready for immediate launch because they are vulnerable to Russian nuclear forces maintained in a similar status, and vice versa. NRDC advocates for standing down high-alert nuclear forces.

» NRDC Nuclear Program Director Matthew McKinzie's blog: Feeling a Cold War Chill over Ukraine
» FAS/NRDC/UNIDIR Report: Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons

Solving the Nuclear Waste Problem

nuclear power

Nuclear power plants in the United States have accumulated over 60,000 tons of highly-radioactive spent fuel from over four decades of operation, but U.S. reactors continue to be licensed for both initial and extended operation to produce spent fuel that has no politically-agreed pathway to safe long-term disposal in a deep geologic repository. NRDC supports a local consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and permanent disposal facilities, as well as the concept of intergenerational justice as an ethical responsibility during the development of a successful nuclear waste management program. The principal objectives of our advocacy have been to:

  1. prioritize the once-through fuel cycle over "closed" fuel cycle options -- i.e. those that rely on technologies for separating weapons-usable plutonium and fabricating it into fresh fuel -- due to non-proliferation, safety, environmental risks, and excessive economic costs of commercial plutonium use;
  2. strongly link "interim storage" of spent nuclear fuel to a national program creating a geologic repository; and
  3. develop a process to site a geologic repository that is science-based and incorporates informed consent from host communities and state and tribal governments.

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 an NRC rulemaking regarding temporary storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste: the "Waste Confidence" rulemaking. In June 2012, the D.C. Circuit held the Waste Confidence rule violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), by allowing nuclear power plants to operate without environmental review of the impacts of extended surface storage of spent fuel.

On August 26, 2014, the NRC approved a controversial new rule and Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) regarding spent fuel that could pose long-term risks to public health and the environment. This would allow utilities to keep dangerous radioactive spent fuel in temporary storage at their reactors indefinitely while barring any licensing challenges predicated on the environmental risks of long term storage. NRDC is engaging federal rulemaking, regulatory oversight and emerging legislation regarding the long-standing and still outstanding problem of ensuring that the various radioactive waste products remain isolated from the biosphere.

» New York Times story on the NRC's nuclear waste rule: Nuclear Waste is Allowed Above Ground Indefinitely
» NRDC press statement on the NRC's nuclear waste rule and EIS: Nuclear Waste Storage Decision Poses Long-Term Public Health Risks

Developing Practical Policies to Curb the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

The NRDC Nuclear Program seeks to promote the creation of new cooperative arrangements for continuous on-site non-proliferation assurance and security. NRDC has developed a proposal for international leasing of current and future sensitive nuclear fuel cycle sites. In our novel policy formulation, called "Nuclear Islands," all proliferation-sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities would be conducted within secure leased areas controlled by a cooperative international association with a commercial stake in the continued peaceful use of nuclear energy.

NRDC has briefed international audiences on this proposal in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Recent project work examines the potential for formation of multi-national, commercial consortia comprised of both state-owned and private nuclear enterprises to provide cradle-to-grave fuel leasing services that would accompany reactor exports to countries building their first nuclear reactors, greatly reducing the proliferation risk of spreading uranium enrichment technology or plutonium-bearing spent fuel to additional nations.

» NRDC publication: Nuclear Islands: International Leasing of Sensitive Nuclear Fuel Cycle Sites

Reducing the Risk of Severe Nuclear Accidents

nuclear accident

In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, NRDC directed its Nuclear Program resources toward addressing the risks of severe nuclear accidents in the United States. Our work focuses on nuclear accidents that are triggered by greater-than-expected natural or man-made events, and that may be compounded by inherent design flaws, equipment failures, operator errors, and inadequate emergency preparations and training.

An NRDC objective is to compel fuller NRC consideration of nuclear safety implications when it reviews 20-year license extension requests for aging reactors. In filings before the NRC in late 2011 and early 2012, the NRDC Nuclear Program initially achieved admission of a contention in the NRC's relicensing proceeding for the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station (LGS) outside of Philadelphia. Our contention alleges that the plant's application for license extension fails to properly consider new and significant information regarding cost-beneficial Severe Accident Management Alternatives (SAMAs) that could mitigate the consequences of a severe nuclear accident for the 8 million plus people that live within 50 miles of the plant. The issue of whether or not the Commission is legally bound by the National Environmental Policy Act to adjudicate this contention is currently under review by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

NRDC advocates that U.S. regulators and the nuclear power industry need to examine the full scope and intensity of environmental, economic, and health consequences posed by severe accidents that could be triggered by unexpectedly severe initiating events such as floods, fires, earthquakes, and explosions.

» NRDC press release: Limerick Nuclear Plant's Re-Licensing Application Circumvents Safety Analysis Requirements
» NRDC analysis of how NRC rules suppress meaningful public participation on nuclear safety and regulation: The Big Moat

Advancing Public Access to Data on Man-Made Radiation in our Environment

Radiation monitoring data in Japan following the Fukushima accident was inadequate and largely inaccessible to the public. In the event of an act of nuclear terrorism, or in an industrial accident involving the release of radionuclides, there will be uncertainty and unpredictability regarding how radioactive contamination travels and the intensity of the dose at specific locations in the region of the incident. The NRDC Nuclear Program is engaged in a two-year project, funded by a "Discovery Grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to develop a pilot citizen radiation monitoring network -- consisting of emerging technologies for networked radiation monitors, online social media, mapping and analysis -- designed and run with health physics expertise.

» NRDC Project Scientist Bemnet Alemayehu's blog: A Citizen Radiation Monitoring Workshop at NRDC

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