WASHINGTON – The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday voted to halt final decisions on new and renewed licenses for reactors nationwide following a June court ruling that said the agency first must assess the environmental risks of storing radioactive waste.
The move could mean a potentially years-long delay of final decisions on as many as 19 pending nuclear power plant licenses, including a proposal to renew those for the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City.
Spokesman David McIntyre stressed that the commission will continue reviewing applications until the point at which a final decision would be made.
"This isn’t saying that we’re not going to issue licenses for years; it’s saying, hold on, we need to take a breath and determine a path forward," McIntyre said. "The commission could come out with a path forward that says you can continue to do these things, but you have to address waste confidence in some way."
At issue is how the U.S. stores spent fuel rods while decades-old nuclear reactors continue to churn out power, without a clear plan on where to stash them permanently. The Obama administration ordered the Energy Department to rescind an application for building a long-term storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
In June, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s "waste confidence" rule, which said spent fuel could be stored safely for 60 years or more at the site of existing plants. The court ruled that the agency was obligated to study the environmental risks of allowing that radioactive material to remain at reactors for decades.
The court also criticized the commission for failing to consider the environmental effects of not finding permanent off-site storage for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain or anywhere else.
Full response weighed
The commission now is studying its full response, including possibly launching an environmental impact study that would span years before a new waste confidence rule could be made final.
In an order issued Tuesday, the commission said it would give the public an opportunity to comment on its decisions, including the breadth of any future environmental reviews.
Overdue, activists say
Nuclear foes and environmental activists who challenged the waste storage rule cheered the move, saying an environmental assessment of spent fuel storage and disposal is overdue.
"That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road," said attorney Diane Curran, who represented some of the groups that brought the case.
Existing licenses for the two units at the South Texas nuclear plant are set to expire in 2027 and 2028. In October 2010, the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Co., asked the NRC to renew the licenses.
That kicked off a long multiyear review process slated to end with a final decision in mid-2013.
The two units at the plant are pressurized-water nuclear reactors.
San Antonio’s city-owned utility, CPS Energy, owns the South Texas Project along with Austin Energy and NRG Energy.