Freeze Ordered on Nuclear Plant Licenses

 | Aug 14, 2012 | 7:45 AM EDT
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The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a federal order to freeze licenses for new nuclear power plants and license renewals for existing nuclear power plants. The order will remain in effect until the federal government resolves issues about the permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel, which may take years to resolve. But the news is not as bad as it may seem.

The NRC's order had made the right decision, which was prompted by three separate events. The root incident was the federal government's decision not to pursue disposal of spent nuclear fuel at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. That decision caused the NRC to suspend licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository.

However, without a repository at Yucca Mountain, the nation no longer has a solution for disposing spent nuclear fuel. With the loss of any assurance that spent fuel can be permanently disposed, environmental groups saw an opportunity to intervene.

Atomic Power Review's Will Davis reported that the States of New York, Connecticut and Vermont sued (petitioned) the NRC in federal court. Consolidated in that case were actions separately filed the Natural Resources Defense Council, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Riverkeeper, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Prairie Island Indian Community. The State of New Jersey joined as an intervenor on behalf of all petitioners.

On March 16, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard Case 11-1045, State Of New York, et al. v. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and United States of America. On June 8, the Court decided that the NRC violated the National Environmental Policy Act in issuing its 2010 update to the Waste Confidence Decision and accompanying Temporary Storage Rule. The Court then vacated the NRC's Decision and their rule. Without a Waste Confidence Decision, the NRC lost its foundational authority for licensing new nuclear power plants and renewing existing licenses.

After the Court published its decision, a number of petitions were filed with the NRC. Petitioners referenced the lack of a Waste Confidence Decision and requested the NRC to (1) suspend final licensing decisions in reactor licensing cases, (2) provide opportunities for public comment on any generic determinations in either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement and (3) provide at least 60 days to seek consideration in individual licensing cases.

As a result, on Aug. 7, 2012, NRC issued the following order:

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. This determination extends just to final license issuance; all licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward.

There are four important consequences of NRC's order. First, licenses already granted are unaffected. That means Southern Company's (SO) license to build and operate their two new reactors in Georgia and SCANA's (SCG) license to build and operate two new reactors in South Carolina are unaffected.

Second, operations at the nation's newest nuclear power plant, Tennessee Valley Authority's TVA Watts Bar 2, which had planned to enter service in 2015, are now dependent on the NRC's ability to resolve its waste confidence issue. The NRC granted TVA a construction permit, but not an operating permit. Therefore, TVA may continue construction but it must wait for an operating permit.

Third, license renewals already granted are unaffected. This means the license renewals for 70-plus facilities already approved by the NRC are unaffected the order. Specifically, Entergy's (ETR) new license renewals for their New England-based Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim units remain valid.

Finally, the 13 license renewal applications in progress will be delayed. However, just because the NRC delays a license renewal does not mean the unit must shut down after its original license expires. Arguably, the unit may continue operating while the NRC delays deciding to approve or reject the application.

In actuality, NRC's order has little impact on the nuclear power industry. NRC's reviews, certifications and permits will continue. Plants currently operating and plants under construction are largely unaffected. All other new plants had been previously deferred.

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