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Suit challenges new nuclear plant waste storage rights

oystercreek030410_optNRC rule would allow a closed Oyster Creek to house radioactive materials until at least 2070

BY ROGER WITHERSPOON
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

A federal court suit challenging the right of nuclear plant operators to store high level radioactive waste on site for 60 years or more was filed Tuesday by the attorney generals of Vermont, New York, and Connecticut.

The suit, filed in the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, seeks to overturn a temporary storage rule adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dec. 23, 2010. The NRC's order, formally known as the Waste Confidence Rule, doubled the amount of time spent nuclear fuel rods can be stored onsite from the previous limit of 30 years. And the NRC is currently considering doubling that limit again to 120 years after the plant has closed.

Nuclear plants currently are storing nearly 50,000 metric tons of high level waste in their spent fuel pools or in concrete casks.

If the current rule stands, the spent fuel at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station for example, which is due to close in 10 years, could be kept onsite until at least 2070 and possibly until 2130. The Salem nuclear plants, whose operating licenses were extended 20 years and may be extended again, could conceivably have high level radioactive waste onsite till nearly the end of the next century. There is, of course, no way to know if the plant operators will still be in existence a century and a half from now to begin the process of cleaning up the site.

The suit charges that the NRC "acted arbitrarily, abused its discretion, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)... " by not first developing a long term environmental analysis of the possible impact of thousands of tons of high level radioactive waste on the environment. And though the three attorney generals sought standing in federal court because of plants within their states, the suit applies to all 104 nuclear power plants around the nation and their long term, on site nuclear waste storage.

For its part, the NRC issued a statement Tuesday that "We believe the Waste Confidence Rule has a solid legal foundation that is well explained in the Commission's decision. The rule is in full accord with earlier court decisions interpreting the Commission's obligations under NEPA.

Members of the New Jersey Attorney General's office had early discussions with their counterparts about the upcoming suit, but declined to join on the state's behalf. New Jersey's nuclear operations are currently storing about 3,000 tons of high level nuclear waste. The agency did not respond to requests for comment.

VermontYankee111610_optBut Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, said New Jersey and other states could still file friend of the court briefs supporting the challenge as the case moves forward.

"All the attorneys general will be attending our spring meeting in a few weeks," Sorrell said, "and we will be discussing it at length at that time."

Sorrell said his opposition to the existing NRC process is the agency's adoption of a single rule for all plant sites. "From an environmental concern," he explained, "the NRC should look at various factors to decide the appropriateness of onsite storage. That would include considerations like the proximity to large urban areas, the proximity to flowing bodies of water, what is the condition of the bedrock underneath the facility, where is the water table, and so on.

"One size doesn't fit all. What might be prudent for short term storage on one site may make some sense for 60 years. But they are saying there is no fundamental difference between one nuclear power site and the next, and in that regard, we think the NRC just didn't do its homework."

In addition, said Sorrell, the lengthy delay takes pressure off of the U.S. government to fulfill its commitment to develop a permanent repository for the nation's high level nuclear waste. Considering that the NRC is looking to extend current operating licenses another 40 years, and plant operators have 10 to 20 years after a shutdown before they have to begin a cleanup, the likelihood of the original operating company still being around is small.

"When you are talking in 100 and 200 year increments it is fundamentally mind boggling," he said. "It is just going to end up being the taxpayers who are going to shoulder the financial costs of decommissioning for the various plants and shouldering the costs of the environmental cleanup.

"This is why people feel the NRC is way closer to the industry it is supposed to regulate than it is to protecting the welfare of the general public."

"The NRC has carried out numerous studies on the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel at U.S. power reactor sites. These include a complete re-examination of spent fuel pool safety and security issues following the 9/11 attacks. The evaluations have supported that it is safe to store this material in either circulating-water spent fuel pools or dry casks for at least 60 years beyond a plant's operational life."

The issue stems from one of the most dangerous aspects of nuclear power operation — the possibility of a Chernobyl-like fuel fire spewing a continuous cloud of radioactive debris. The plants reactors contain about 100 tons of uranium, packaged in 12-foot-long fuel rods, and offload about a third of this "spent fuel" during refueling shut downs every 18 to 24 months. The spent fuel is a high level mix of radioactive material, including plutonium, uranium, cesium, and iodine.

Over the years, thousands of tons of spent fuel have been stored in 40-foot-deep pools, which have concrete walls about five to six feet thick, at each individual power plant. That does not make them invulnerable. An NRC study of spent fuel pool risk, released in October, 2000, stated that "1 of 2 aircrafts is large enough to penetrate the 5-foot-thick reinforced concrete wall.... It is further estimated that 1 of 2 crashes damage the spent fuel pool enough to uncover the stored fuel."

That would result in uncontrolled fission and a nuclear fuel fire, which would spread radiation and cause up to 25,000 deaths within a 500 mile radius, according to the NRC's study. The U.S. Government was supposed to take charge of the nation's spent fuel by 2010, but the planned repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been stalled indefinitely. As a result, nuclear operators have been moving their oldest spent fuel into 100-ton dry casks, which sit on football-field sized pads in the open.

According to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the three attorneys general charged that the NRC violated federal laws "when it found ‘reasonable assurance' that sufficient, licensed, off-site storage capacity will be available to dispose of nuclear power plant waste when necessary."

Schneiderman's office has been opposing the relicensing of the twin Indian Point nuclear reactors on the lower Hudson River. In a statement Tuesday, he said "Whether you're for or against re-licensing Indian Point, we can all agree on one thing: Before dumping radioactive waste at the site for at least 60 years after it's closed, our communities deserve a thorough review of the environmental, public health, and safety risks such a move would present.

"This is not just a safety and environmental issue, but also one that could affect property values in Westchester, and I am committed to forcing the feds to take the hardest look possible at the risks of long-term, onsite storage, before they allow our communities to become blighted and our families, properties, and businesses threatened by radioactive waste dumps for generations to come."

Robert Snook, Connecticut's assistant attorney general, said "there have already been leaks of tritium from Connecticut Yankee into the water table. This state has long been concerned about de facto storage in these various active reactors and former reactors. Instead of one, scientifically studied, national nuclear repository, we have scores of them with no scientific study.

"Some are in highly populated areas with high water tables, and it is not a good place to store the waste indefinitely. I don't want to be disrespectful of the experts at the NRC, but we do not believe there is sufficient record to show that these things are necessarily safe for 60 years or more.

The federal suit dovetails challenges to the NRC's rule by the environmental groups Riverkeeper and Clearwater, who filed "contentions" in January with the agency's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board asserting that Indian Point should not be relicensed without a full environmental study of the possible impact of its dry and wet storage on the local environment.

"There is no guarantee that at the end of 60 years there will be a safe national repository," said Clearwater Environmental Director Manna Jo Greene. "And we don't believe they have done a thorough job assessing the potential impacts of storing nuclear waste at nuclear reactors."

Roger Witherspoon writes Energy Matters at www.RogerWitherspoon.com

 
Comments (3)
3 Thursday, 24 February 2011 13:25
energy matters
Your information is incorrect.
Spent fuel contains a basket of material, including plutonium and uranium, which are fissionable. Another byproduct is ruthenium, which makes the zirconium cladding on the fuel more likely to catch on fire.
Secondly, the primary difference between an exothermic fire following a LOCA in the reactor fuel, and an exothermic fire following a LOCA in the spent fuel pool is that the spent fuel pool has far more radioactive material to spread over a wider area.
That is not my assertion. It is the conclusion of the NRC's "Technical Study of Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk at Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants." If you feel that is wrong, convince the NRC to change its position.
2 Thursday, 17 February 2011 08:15
Lachlan
The author makes two mistakes regarding a loss of water from a cooling pond. First, spent fuel cannot sustain a fission chain reaction- that's why it has to be removed from the reactor. The heat produced by spent fuel is caused by the decay of fission products. Secondly, the Chernobyl incident was caused by a loss of coolant from the reactor- not the same thing as loss of water from a cooling pond.
1 Thursday, 17 February 2011 02:37
Rod Adams
As Roger Witherspoon points out, it is possible to raise a lot of uncertainty flags when you project out for decades or hundreds of years. We really do not know EXACTLY what will happen or who will pay if there is some kind of issue with used nuclear fuel that the NRC scientists and engineers did not predict.

In contrast, we KNOW how long it takes before the deadly waste products from hydrocarbon combustion are uncontrollably released into the environment. Fossil waste dumping occurs almost instantaneously because the mass and volume of the material in question is WAY too large to store - no matter how hard you try.

Yes, after operating nuclear energy plants in the US since 1957, we have accumulated about 50-60,000 tons of used fuel material. That material is carefully inventoried, monitored and stored in either pools or casks. The plant operators can account for almost every single gram produced. There are 806 billion kilowatt hours produced every year in nuclear plants in the US.

In contrast, a single large coal plant will be required to dump about 45,000 tons of waste material DIRECTLY into our shared atmosphere EVERY single DAY that it operates. It will also dump about 1,000 tons of a toxic mix of ash and 'stuff' into a slurry pond and ash pile. Those storage locations are neither monitored nor even sealed from the environment and are often found to be leaking into nearby bodies of water. Sometimes the retaining dams fail with significant and well publicized consequences. A large coal plant might produce 8 billion kilowatt hours per year, so you can easily see the difference in the tons of toxic waste per kilowatt hour between coal and nuclear.

About 50% of the power in the US comes from burning coal, 20% from burning explosive natural gas, and 20% from fissioning uranium. Most of the rest comes from large hydro electric dams. Do not be fooled, the alternative to nuclear is not weather dependent and fundamentally unreliable wind and solar; it is something with its own waste products that are often far more predictably and immediately released into the environment.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

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