States challenge NRC waste rule

28 October 2014

Three US states have launched a legal challenge to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) recently approved final rule on storage of used nuclear fuel after reactors have closed. The petition filed on behalf of the states of New York, Vermont and Connecticut alleges that the rule violates federal environmental legislation.

The challenge filed with the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit focuses on the NRC's final rule on the continued storage of used nuclear fuel which came into effect on 20 October, often referred to as the "waste confidence" rule. The petition additionally challenges the final rule's supporting generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) as well as an NRC order lifting the suspension of all final licensing decisions for affected applications in view of the rule and GEIS, which also came into effect on 20 October. The petition was filed by the three states' attorneys general, and asks the court to "vacate" the rule and send it back to the NRC to be revise it and issue a new GEIS.

The petitioners contend that the used fuel storage rule and GEIS do not comply with the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other requirements, and are inconsistent with earlier decisions by various federal courts concerning waste and accident issues. The same states also filed a lawsuit against an earlier revision of the waste storage rule, resulting in a June 2012 court ruling in favour of the petitioners.

New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman referred to the earlier court ruling in a statement issued alongside the petition. "In 2012, we won a landmark federal court ruling requiring NRC to perform a full and detailed assessment of the risks involved in the long-term, on-site storage of highly radioactive nuclear wastes at nuclear power plants", he said. "However, in responding to that ruling, the NRC has turned its responsibilities on their head - focusing on issues that are unrelated to the risks posed to the environment, public health, and safety."

His words were echoed by fellow petitioner William Sorrell, attorney general for Vermont. "[W]e are going back to court to ensure that the NRC complies with its legal obligations," he said.

The updated waste storage rule sets up a regulatory framework that would allow used fuel to be stored at nuclear power plant sites for up to 60 years, pending the availability of a final repository to accept it. As the NRC is effectively unable to issue final licences for new power plants or licence extensions for existing reactors without a waste confidence rule in place, it potentially affects all nuclear power plants – those in operation, shut down or yet to be built.

In late September, a coalition of 17 US environmental groups filed a petition with the NRC seeking a suspension of reactor licensing in the absence of a waste confidence rule as a "first step" towards legal action.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News