By Dorothy Davis
Attorney generals for New York, Vermont and Connecticut have joined in a suit against the federal government to block implementation of a rule change adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concerning onsite storage of spent nuclear fuel.
The suit filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, targets the Temporary Storage Rule adopted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December 2010, which doubles the amount of time spent nuclear fuel rods can be stored at a decommissioned nuclear power site from 30 to 60 years.
Specifically, the revised Temporary Storage Rule outlines there is no significant impact on the environment in allowing spent nuclear fuel to be stored at power plants for the extended period of time and eliminates the need for individual environmental analysis of each nuclear storage site before a storage extension could be granted.
The suit filed by the attorney general’s asks the court to dismiss the newly adopted Temporary Storage Rule and return the matter to the NRC alleging the policy violates federal laws that require an environmental assessment to be carried out at each nuclear site before mid to long-term storage of waste is approved.
Vermont attorney general, William H. Sorrell told the New York Times, “It puts more pressure, frankly, on the federal government and the nuclear power industry to come up with long-term - and by that I mean permanent - solutions.” Mr. Sorrell continued, “If we take our feet off the accelerator there, the politics and other considerations of permanent storage will be allowed to go unresolved for a longer period of time.”
According to the NRC website, there are currently two acceptable storage methods in the U.S. for spent nuclear fuel storage, spent fuel water pools and dry cask storage.
Water-pools involve storing spent nuclear fuel rods under water to provide adequate shielding from radiation. The rods are moved into the water pools from the reactor along the bottom of water canals, so that the spent fuel is always shielded to protect workers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the need for alternative storage began to grow when pools at many nuclear reactors began to fill up with stored spent fuel. Utilities began looking at options such as dry cask storage for increasing spent fuel storage capacity.
Dry cask storage allows spent fuel that has already been cooled in the spent fuel pool for at least one year to be surrounded by inert gas inside a container called a cask. The casks are typically steel cylinders that provide a leak-tight containment of the spent fuel. Each cylinder is surrounded by additional steel, concrete, or other material to provide radiation shielding.
In 2009 the Obama administration established a commission to pursue alternative storage solutions for spent nuclear fuel after dropping funding and its license application for a permanant storage repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.