Major Court Ruling Forces Nuclear Waste Disposal Review

NRDC: ‘This Is A Game Changer’

WASHINGTON (June 8, 2012) –  A federal appeals court’s unanimous decision today 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.

A copy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision can be found here:$file/11-1045-1377720.pdf

Key excerpts:

Page 3: We further hold that the Commission’s evaluation of the risks of spent nuclear fuel is deficient in two ways: First, in concluding that permanent storage will be available “when necessary,” the Commission did not calculate the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent storage—a possibility that cannot be ignored.

Second, in determining that spent fuel can safely be stored on site at nuclear plants for sixty years after the expiration of a plant’s license, the Commission failed to properly examine future dangers and key consequences.

Page 4:  Twenty years of work on establishing such a repository at Yucca Mountain was recently abandoned when the Department of Energy decided to withdraw its license application for the facility. Id. at 3. At this time, there is not even a prospective site for a repository, let alone progress toward the actual construction of one.

Page 9: Though we give considerable deference to an agency’s decision regarding whether to prepare an EIS, the agency must 1) “accurately identif[y] the relevant environmental concern,” 2) take a “hard look at the problem in preparing its EA,” 3) make a “convincing case for its finding of no significant impact,” and 4) show that even if a significant impact will occur, “changes or safeguards in the project sufficiently reduce the impact to a minimum.”

Page 13: The Commission apparently has no long term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository. If the government continues to fail in its quest to establish one, then [spent nuclear fuel] will seemingly be stored on site at nuclear plants on a permanent basis. The Commission can and must assess the potential environmental effects of such a failure.