NRC reactor licensing decisions challenged

20 June 2012

The attorney general of the state of Massachusetts has filed an appeal with a US court against the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) decision to relicense the Pilgrim nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, environmental groups are calling on the NRC to delay final reactor licensing decisions until it has studied the environmental impacts of its policy for on-site used fuel storage.

Pilgrim (Entergy)
Pilgrim (Image: Entergy)

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agreed in late May to extend the operating licence of Entergy's single-unit Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Massachusetts for a further 20 years. The plant's original 40-year licence was scheduled to expire on 8 June. The renewed licence enables Pilgrim to operate until 2032.

NRC staff requested authorization from the commission to renew the plant's licence even though some contentions by politicians and environmental groups remained under adjudication before an NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). The NRC noted that this authorization specified that "if the renewed licence is subsequently set aside on appeal, the previous licence would be reinstated."

However, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley has now lodged an appeal with the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston against the NRC's decision to relicense the plant claiming that the commission acted "arbitrarily" and "abused its discretion."

Coakley first appealed to the NRC in May 2011 against the decision by the Pilgrim ASLB to deny the attorney general's office a hearing to consider the implications of the Fukushima accident for the Pilgrim relicensing proceedings. In March 2012, the NRC affirmed the ASLB decision and in April the attorney general appealed the decision to deny a hearing to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The new appeal challenges the NRC's decision to grant the license extension without first considering the lessons learned from the Fukushima accident and their relevance for the Pilgrim plant - a plant of a similar design.

According to Coakley, "The NRC, over our objections, chose to relicense Pilgrim without fully considering the important safety issues raised in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident." She added, "We are appealing that decision today to require the NRC to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the plant and the residents of the surrounding communities."

Coakley claims that "the NRC's refusal to consider these important public safety and environmental issues violates federal law and the NRC's own regulations to consider new and significant information relevant to the operation of a nuclear plant."

The NRC has said that it will handle all post-Fukushima licensing issues on an industry-wide basis, rather than plant-by-plant.

Pilgrim's 688 MWe boiling water reactor began operating in 1972 and currently produces almost 10% of Massachusetts' electricity.

Used fuel policy

Meanwhile, a petition filed by 22 environmental groups calls on the NRC not to make any final reactor licensing decisions until it has completed a rulemaking action on the environmental impacts of used nuclear fuel storage and disposal, as required under the "waste confidence rule" decision of 8 June by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The groups - including the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League - contend that federal laws require the NRC to suspend final licensing decisions while it determines what environmental effects could occur if the NRC's search for a high-level radioactive waste repository never materializes.

The groups claim that this petition is "to ensure that the environmental analysis directed by the court is meaningfully incorporated into the licensing of nearly 35 reactors in a number of states."

In addition, the groups have asked the NRC to establish procedures for allowing members of the public to comment on the environmental analysis and raise site-specific concerns about the environmental impacts of used fuel storage in individual licensing cases.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News