Court ruling on spent nuclear fuel forces U.S. to reassess storage rules, environmental impact

Stateline Midwest ~ October 2012

In the Prairie Island Indian Community, some residents live as close as 600 yards from a facility storing highly radioactive spent fuel from a nearly 40-year-old nuclear power plant. The southeast Minnesota community has unwillingly become what state Public Utilities Commissioner David Boyd calls a “de facto storage site” for nuclear waste. And it is not alone.

Across the Midwest, in eight different states, a total of 16,800 metric tons of uranium is being stored at 22 nuclear power plants. One state in the region, Illinois, is home to nearly 13 percent of the nation’s 67,450 metric tons of uranium, the highest percentage in the country.

Due to delays in planning and building a national repository for this waste, plant operators in the Midwest have had to manage the nation’s “temporary” solution — on-site storage — for a long time. And a permanent solution still appears nowhere in sight.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s process and rules that allow for temporary storage are being revisited, as the result of a June decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals. The decision was the result of a lawsuit by several northeastern states, the Prairie Island Indian Community, and several environmental groups. In particular, they challenged the NRC’s environmental review process in updating its Waste Confidence Decision and in approving an associated temporary-storage rule.

The court vacated the rules and sent both back to the NRC for further action. In September, the NRC announced that within two years, it would develop an environmental impact statement as well as revise the Waste Confidence Decision and its rule on the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel.

“[State] public utility commissioners are in favor of having the waste confidence rule reviewed,” says Boyd, who serves as chair of a subcommittee on nuclear waste issues for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

In its June ruling, the appeals court said the commission “failed to properly examine future dangers and key consequences” related to on-site storage, thus putting it in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

The Waste Confidence Decision, issued in 1984, included the finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored for at least 30 years beyond the licensed life of each plant. In 2010, the time line was extended to 60 years. The original decision also assumed that a permanent repository for nuclear waste would be built.

The court ruled that the NRC should have made an environmental assessment before determining that doubling the time line would not have a significant impact. The court cited the dangers of fires at storage sites, where spent fuel rods are kept in cooling pools. If the pools were to leak, the rods could catch fire.

The permanent repository planned for Yucca Mountain in Nevada has stalled and may never be built. The Obama Administration canceled the project in 2010, instead creating a commission to develop alternatives.