A national coalition of environmental groups is asking that all nuclear licensing — including the Ameren Missouri request to extend the Callaway Nuclear Plant's life for 20 years — be put on hold until a solution is found for storing nuclear waste.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, joined by 22 other petitioners including the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday for the moratorium on new licensing actions. In the petition, the environmental groups said a recent court of appeals ruling mandates the action.
The issue is long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. Nuclear power plants currently store their spent fuel rods on-site, generally by placing the rods in a pool of water to cool them and block the release of radioactivity. The amount of spent fuel in storage might reach 150,000 metric tons by the year 2050, the appeals court noted in its ruling.
The court case challenged a "Waste Confidence Decision" — essentially the NRC's estimate of how well issues of spent fuel will be handled in the future. The court ruled against the NRC on whether it should do a full environmental assessment of the long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. The court ruled that it must do that assessment.
"We recognize that the Commission is in a difficult position given the political problems concerning the storage of spent nuclear fuel," the court ruled. "Overall, we cannot defer to the Commission's conclusions regarding temporary storage because the Commission did not conduct a sufficient analysis of the environmental risks."
Ameren late last year applied for a license extending the life of the Callaway Nuclear Plant to 2044. It began operating in 1984 with a license that was good until 2024. Ameren also is seeking to build a second nuclear power station at Callaway but is several years away from applying for a construction license.
According to the timeline on the NRC website, no final decision is expected on the Ameren application until after 2013, but no specific date is given.
The environmental groups are concerned because political and environmental concerns have prevented a solution to the issue of how to deal with spent fuel. "The continual, 'We don't know what we are going to do with it, but we know it will be all right' is not sufficient," said Ed Smith, safe energy director for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.
A plan to bury the waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., was abandoned for political and environmental reasons. The court was skeptical that a new permanent storage location could be found. "At this time, there is not even a prospective site for a repository, let alone progress toward the actual construction of one," the court noted in its opinion.
The petition filed yesterday does not ask the NRC to stop all work on licensing issues. Instead, it asks the commission not to issue any licenses until the reconsideration of the rule, ordered by the appeals court, is complete.
In a response to the petition, Ameren issued a statement this morning that said it recognizes there might be delays in the licensing process because of the appeals court ruling.
"The NRC's response to this case is not known at this time and the impacts of this case on the industry are presently difficult to determine," the statement said. "We recognize that this decision may prevent the NRC from issuing an extension to Callaway's operating license until the questions surrounding the 2010 Waste Confidence Decision have been resolved."