June 8, 2012 Waste Confidence Rule rejected by U.S. Court of Appeals
On June 8, 2012, the Court threw out the NRC rule (Waste Confidence 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 Court noted that, after decades of failure to site a repository, including twenty years of working on the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository, the NRC “has no long-term plan other than hoping for a geologic repository.” Therefore it is possible that spent fuel will be stored at reactor sites “on a permanent basis.” Under the circumstances, the NRC must examine the environmental consequences of failing to establish a repository when one is needed.
The Court also rejected NRC’s decision minimizing the risks of leaks or fires in spent fuel stored in reactor pools during future storage, because the NRC had not demonstrated that these future impacts would be insignificant. The Court found that past experience with pool leaks was not an adequate predictor of future experience. It also concluded that the NRC had not shown that catastrophic pool fires were so unlikely that their risks could be ignored.
In vacating the rule, the Court directed that the NRC comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct a thorough environmental analysis of radioactive spent fuel storage and disposal issues.
The groups petitioning the NRC contend that federal law requires the NRC to suspend its final reactor licensing decisions while it determines what environmental effects could occur if the NRC’s decades-long search for a radioactive nuclear waste repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel never materializes.