Vt. to NRC: How Do We Get Rid of Waste?

Montpelier — Attorneys general in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut announced yesterday they are petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a more thorough environmental review of storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste at plant sites.

It was another effort by states to turn up the pressure on federal agencies to keep a promise Washington made 30 years ago but has yet to fulfill: that it would take possession of and find a permanent disposal site for what’s now more than 70,000 tons of waste piling up at the nation’s 104 commercial reactors.

“Federal law requires that the NRC analyze the environmental dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactors that were not designed for long-term storage,” said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

In a landmark ruling last year, a federal appeals court in Washington said the NRC needed to do a full environmental review of the risks of storing the waste — spent nuclear fuel — in storage pools and casks made of steel and concrete on the grounds of nuclear plants while the search continues for a disposal solution.

The NRC has been working on new rules for safe waste storage since that decision. Yesterday, the attorneys general petitioned the five-member commission to reject the recommendations of its staff, arguing that those recommendations did not adequately address the risks of spent fuel storage.

“NRC staff is continuing to ignore serious public health, safety and environmental risks related to long-term, on-site storage,” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a news release. “The communities that serve as de facto long-term radioactive waste repositories deserve a full and detailed accounting of the risks.”

Exposure to high-level radioactive waste can be lethal, and the material needs to be isolated for at least thousands of years while its radioactivity dissipates. One court decision related to the decades-long controversy over Nevada’s Yucca Mountain specified an isolation period of 1 million years.

The questions have become all the more urgent since the Obama administration decided in 2010 to scrap plans for a waste dump at Yucca Mountain in the face of stiff opposition, including from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

With no alternative plan on the horizon, “NRC must consider the environmental implications of existing waste storage at reactor sites based on the reasonable assumption that such wastes will remain at the sites forever,” the states said in their petition.

Flaws in the NRC’s review to date, the attorneys general said, include that it has not given adequate consideration to two alternatives:

∎ A rule saying that after five years cooling in specially constructed pools, the waste would have to be moved to hardened concrete and steel casks on plant grounds. That would leave much less radioactive material in spent fuel pools that have been described as more vulnerable to earthquakes or terrorist attacks.

∎ “The alternative of not allowing further production of spent fuel until the NRC determines that there is a safe and environmentally acceptable permanent waste repository to receive the additional spent fuel.” Not allowing further production of spent fuel would mean shutting down the entire U.S. nuclear industry.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency was not contemplating any step that drastic but would apply its normal petition review process to the states’ filing.

“Since we consider both spent fuel pools and dry cask storage to be safe means of storing this material, there is no need to halt plant operations while efforts to move forward with an interim and/or permanent national repository continue,” Sheehan said in an email.

Steven Kerekes, a spokesman with the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, said he would leave it to the NRC to “speak to how and whether this petition fits into its well-established National Environmental Policy Act and rulemaking processes.”

“The larger issue is used fuel management; nuclear energy facilities are storing used nuclear fuel safely and securely. They will continue to do so throughout this process and beyond,” Kerekes added.