Partial victory on nuclear safety
Published 06:52 p.m., Friday, June 15, 2012
A federal appeals court's rejection this month of a rule that allows nuclear power plants to store waste long-term is a victory for the nation, including those of us in Connecticut who live near old plants that are packed with spent fuel rods they weren't designed to hold.
But it's only a partial victory, and will remain so until the federal government creates a place to put our nation's enormous accumulation of nuclear waste.
On June 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed a rule that allows waste to be stored at a plant for up to 60 years after it shuts down. The court also said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should perform extensive environmental assessments on the impact of long-term waste storage at the nation's nuclear plants.
The NRC to date has been loath to perform such assessments. Instead it has genuflected at the knee of the industry it is supposed to regulate. A Hearst Connecticut Newspapers examination last year revealed how the NRC has allowed plants in the Northeast to greatly exceed their storage capacities. The spent-fuel pools at New England's oldest plants now hold up to five times more fuel than they were initially designed to handle.
Part of the problem is caused by a lack of a federal repository. But another cause is plant operators' reluctance to spend millions moving spent fuel rods from pools to safer dry cask storage. The NRC has abetted the nuclear industry in its effort to avoid costs by granting new licenses at ever-increasing capacities.
At Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford, for example, the pool at the Unit 3 reactor was originally licensed to hold 756 assemblies. It is now licensed to handle up to 1,860 assemblies and holds 1,040 assemblies.
Close by on the shore of the Hudson River, the Indian Point nuclear plant has 2,073 spent fuel assemblies in two pools, according to 2002 data compiled by the Department of Energy. Those pools were originally licensed to hold a total of 742 assemblies.
The appeals court's decision puts the onus on the federal government to do something about our nuclear waste problem. A plan was under way to build a repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but the Energy Department, at President Obama's order, cut the project two years ago.
Until an alternative site is located and a repository is built, which in all likelihood is years from happening, the court decision puts the onus on nuclear plant operators to put safety in line with profit, and move waste from pools to dry storage. And it puts the onus on the NRC to do its job.