MONTPELIER, Vt. - The nuclear energy watchdog group New England Coalition has been waiting a long time, a very long time, for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to pay attention to its concerns.
The agency has just replied to a petition concerning safety and radiation exposure that the coalition filed in 1975.
"No petition before its time," said NRC spokesman Eliot Brenner.
As if being ignored for three decades weren't enough, the NRC denied the group's petition.
The coalition had been urging federal regulators to consider, as part of their environmental review of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, the full effects of nuclear power - from mining uranium to burying radioactive waste. The plant opened in 1972.
After two federal court decisions favoring critics of nuclear power, the NRC developed a table detailing its estimates for radiation exposures from various parts of the nuclear "fuel cycle," including mining and processing uranium fuel.
The coalition filed its petition Nov. 19, 1975, saying the commission's table "'seriously underestimates' the impact on human safety and health" by disregarding the long-term effects of certain long-lasting radioactive materials, especially radon, an NRC document said.
NRC spokesman Neal Sheehan said his agency had addressed the issues raised in the petition in other contexts, including a generic environmental review of nuclear power plants. But it wasn't until the agency began reviewing a batch of applications for new reactors in the last two years that it began to address the coalition's concern head-on.
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Sheehan said the NRC formally denied the petition March 11 because the agency did not see a "high safety significance" in connection with radon.
Raymond Shadis, technical adviser with the coalition, said knowledge about radon has grown in recent decades and there is more reason to worry about it now than was known in 1975. The Environmental Protection Agency said in 2003 that radon from natural sources can accumulate in buildings and is responsible for an estimated 21,000 deaths from lung cancer in the United States each year.
"At least the NRC is, if not prompt, consistent," Shadis said. "They got it wrong the first time and after 32 years of sleeping on it, they got it wrong again."
Sheehan and Brenner said the NRC shelved the petition while it responded to what it considered more pressing matters.
Shadis argued that the First Amendment's right of the people to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" isn't worth much if the government doesn't respond.
"It's supposed to be sometime soon, not 32 years down the road," he said.
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© 2008 The Associated Press.