Acknowledging the problem of nuclear waste disposal, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered a hold on issuing new nuclear plant licenses or license renewals on Tuesday, a decision cheered by environmental groups.
Tuesday's announcement comes in response to a June 8 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that found "the NRC violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in issuing its 2010 update to the Waste Confidence Decision and accompanying Temporary Storage Rule," Reuters reports. More specifically, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy explains that "the Court threw out the NRC rule that permitted licensing and re-licensing of nuclear reactors based on the supposition that (a) the NRC will find a way to dispose of spent reactor fuel to be generated by reactors at some time in the future when it becomes 'necessary' and (b) in the mean time, spent fuel can be stored safely at reactor sites."
The NRC writes in its order (pdf): "Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor license renewal. Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both. We have not yet determined a course of action. But, in recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent upon the Waste Confidence Decision or the Temporary Storage Rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed."
On June 18, two dozen groups including Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Friends of the Earth, Nuclear Information and Resource Service and Public Citizen urged the NRC to suspend new and renewed licenses.
Diane Curran, an attorney representing some of the groups in the Court of Appeals case, welcomed the decision but admonished the NRC for dragging its feet on doing an environmental impact study of waste storage. "This Commission decision halts all final licensing decisions -- but not the licensing proceedings themselves -- until NRC completes a thorough study of the environmental impacts of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road," said Curran.
Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, petitioner to the Court, said: “We’re pleased with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ruling; it is long overdue. Nuclear power is not a clean generating source when it creates long-lived radioactive and toxic waste that has no long-term safe disposal technology in place. We believe it is appropriate to halt nuclear licensing decisions and stop creating an inter-generational debt of nuclear waste that will burden our children and grandchildren for centuries to come.”
Despite the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster and widespread global resistance to nuclear energy, the NRC will still move forward with licensing reviews and proceedings.