Anti-Nuclear Group Sues Feds Over Spent Fuel Proposals

Oyster Creek Among Plants Holding ‘Hot’ Waste in Limbo
Apr 10, 2019

Beyond Nuclear, a non-profit organization with members nationwide, is suing the federal government and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over two licensing proceedings for interim spent nuclear fuel repositories currently before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

In the March 18 lawsuit, filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the organization is seeking a review of an order by the NRC involving Holtec International, the Camden-based energy technology company seeking to purchase and fast-track the decommissioning of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township, and Interim Storage Partners to construct and operate interim spent fuel facilities in New Mexico and western Texas.

Beyond Nuclear petitioned for intervener status in both proceedings and raised the question of whether Holtec and Interim Storage Partners license applications violate the Nuclear Waste Policy Act “because they contemplate federal ownership of spent fuel during transportation to and/or storage” at the private facilities, according to the March lawsuit.

Under the act, the federal government cannot take title to privately produced spent nuclear fuel until a final repository is operational.

“You can’t just disregard federal law,” said Diane Curran, of the D.C.-based Harmon Curran, one of the country’s first public interest law firms. Curran represented Beyond Nuclear during a two-day legal proceeding before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in January to determine whether opponents have standing to dispute Holtec’s application. “The lawsuit is saying stop playing with federal law.”

Beyond Nuclear filed a motion with the NRC to dismiss the license applications and terminate legal proceedings. But the federal agency decided its concerns should be heard before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Curran said. The adjudicatory body does not have the authority to determine whether the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act are being violated, according to Curran.

Holtec petitioned the NRC to build and operate phase one of the interim repository on approximately 1,040 acres of land in Lea County, New Mexico. The land is owned by Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a public body created through a joint-powers agreement between Eddy and Lea counties, as well as the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, located in the southeast part of the state.

In its license application for the facility, Holtec is seeking authorization to store 5,000 metric tons of uranium in roughly 500 spent nuclear fuel canisters under a 40-year license. However, in the Oct. 9 consolidated response to hearing requests on the repository, NRC staff noted that individual canisters vary in capacity. The 500 canisters proposed by Holtec have the potential to hold up to 8,680 tons of uranium from commercial nuclear reactors, as well as a small quantity of spent mixed-oxide fuel.

If the NRC issues the requested license, Holtec expects to subsequently ask for additional amendments to the initial license to expand the storage capacity of the facility, according to Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the NRC Region 1 office. Under its proposal, the company proposes expanding the facility in 19 subsequent phases, each for an additional 500 canisters, to be completed over the course of 20 years, he said.

“Ultimately, Holtec anticipates that approximately 10,000 canisters would be stored at the facility upon completion of 20 phases,” he said, noting that each phase would require NRC review and approval.

Meanwhile, Interim Storage Partners proposes a 14,900-acre site in Andrews County, western Texas.

Until a decision is made, the only option for U.S. nuclear power plants, according to federal officials, is to store spent fuel from the reactor vessels onsite. That includes decommissioned or decommissioning power plants, such as Oyster Creek.

“If (the sites are) licensed, it becomes a defacto waste dump,” Curran said. “What’s the motivation to find a (permanent) repository?”

The federal government failed to provide a long-term solution for housing spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants, as well as from U.S. Navy reactors, after rejecting its own plans for Yucca Mountain in Nevada nearly a decade ago. In its proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, the NRC asked Congress for $38 million so it can complete its review of Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for spent nuclear fuel.

“The interim repositories are viewed as a storage bridge until a permanent repository is opened,” Sheehan has said, noting the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board hasn’t ruled on standing and/or contentions from the January proceedings.

Curran said the spent fuel should be stored on site, as it has been for more than a decade at Oyster Creek, in a dry cask storage system until a permanent, underground repository is established.

“The people of Illinois,” she said, “you benefited from it (nuclear power), you keep it (the waste),” she said, asking why people in areas that never profited should now be the keeper of radioactive waste generated by nuclear energy.

— Gina G. Scala

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