NRC's Assumptions About the Impacts of Waste Disposal are Obsolete – An Environmental Impact Statement is Needed to Comply With Federal Law, Groups Say

Less than a week after three states went to court to dispute the safety issues of storing nuclear waste on site at reactor sites, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) faces two major new legal challenges to the agency's 2010 findings that used nuclear reactor fuel and high-level radioactive waste (HLW) can be disposed of safely on a long-term basis.  

In one filing by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the other joint filing the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL), Riverkeeper, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), the new petitioners are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn two NRC rules that conclude that storage and disposal of spent (or used) nuclear reactor fuel and HLW generated by spent fuel reprocessing pose no significant safety or environmental concerns.  The NRDC petition is online at The petition by the other groups is online at

The environmental organizations' lawsuits have a different focus from the lawsuits filed by New York, Vermont and Connecticut on February 16, 2011.  While the states criticize the NRC's Temporary Storage Rule for generalizing that temporary storage of spent fuel at reactor sites is benign and failing to address problems at individual reactor sites, the environmental groups will focus on challenging the NRC's finding that spent reactor fuel will be permanently disposed of safely.

The groups are arguing that the NRC's "confidence" that a geologic repository "will be available …when necessary" is so vague as to be meaningless, and without foundation in the facts and history of the U.S. geologic repository program.

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, whose report on the NRC's draft rules serve as part of the technical foundation for the court appeal, said:"NRC's 'confidence' that spent fuel can be disposed of safely is nothing more than wishful thinking.  The U.S. government has tried to site a repository for spent fuel and high-level waste for decades – and has failed.  None of its past predictions regarding the future availability of a repository have been fulfilled.  In 1984 the NRC estimated that a repository would be opened in 2007-2009 and in 1989 it estimated the opening of a repository by 2025.  The NRC's new statement, that a repository will be available at some unfixed time when it is 'necessary,' is just a fig leaf over the fact that no one knows whether, where, and when a repository will be available or what the environmental and health impacts might be."

The organizations will also argue that the NRC must prepare a comprehensive and up-to-date environmental analysis of the health and environmental impacts of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste disposal.  The NRC no longer has any factual basis for its long-held position that radioactive releases from a spent nuclear fuel repository would be zero.  The NRC's assumption of essentially zero release depends on the assumptions of 30 years ago that (a) spent fuel will be reprocessed and that (b) high-level waste will be disposed of in a salt formation.

However, the U.S. government's current policy is to dispose of spent fuel rather than reprocess it, and the NRC now admits that high-level radioactive waste should not be disposed of in salt deposits for technical reasons.   It is generally acknowledged in U.S. government studies that radiation doses will be greater than zero in any geologic context other than salt.

Geoff Fettus, Senior Project Attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said:  "This case is about how highly radioactive waste will be treated in the licensing process for a new generation of nuclear plants. In contrast to the NRC's effort to kick the issue down the road until some day in the distant future, the law requires the NRC to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that evaluates the public health and environmental impacts of spent fuel disposal. An EIS would also address the question of whether there are more cost-effective energy alternatives that would avoid saddling future generations with the costs and risks of disposing of highly radioactive waste generated by nuclear reactors."

Louis Zeller, science director of Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, said: "The NRC licensed the first generation of over 100 nuclear reactors, allowing sixty thousand tons of highly radioactive spent fuel to pile up at reactor sites, without having a proven means of disposing of it.   They're whistling past the graveyard on this crucial question.  Since the NRC's assumptions about the impacts of disposal are obsolete by its own reckoning, the time has finally come for the NRC to acknowledge the reality and prepare an EIS as the law requires."

The NRC rules under challenge are the Waste Confidence Update and the Temporary Spent Fuel Storage Rule. Both were published in the Federal Register on December 23, 2010 (See 75 Fed. Reg. 81037 and 75 Fed. Reg. 81032, respectively.)

The groups expect the briefing on the pair of petitions to take place this spring or summer.