David Dodd 10:32 a.m., May 25
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced yesterday that it has suspended the issuance of any license approvals for nuclear plants, affecting both new construction projects and those, like California’s two operating facilities at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, which are seeking license renewals.
The decision comes in response to a June ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which struck down “waste confidence” provisions approved by the Commission and found the body to be in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Shortly after the ruling, a coalition of 24 nuclear watchdog groups petitioned the Commission, urging a freeze on any further final licensing decisions until provisions were in place to address the environmental impact of the storage of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel. No long-term solution for storage of such waste currently exists, and none is currently being developed, leaving plants to store spent fuel on site, often in overcrowded exposed pools of water, which require constant circulation in order to prevent meltdown.
“This Commission decision halts all final licensing decisions -- but not the licensing proceedings themselves -- until NRC completes a thorough study of the environmental impacts of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer for some of the petitioners, in a release. “With today's Commission decision, we are hopeful that the agency will undertake the serious work.”
But Peter Bradford, a former Commission chairman, expressed concern over the long-term viability of nuclear power for reasons beyond the waste issue.
“It is important to recognize that the reactors awaiting construction licenses weren't going to be built anytime soon even without the Court decision or today's NRC action. Falling demand, cheaper alternatives and runaway nuclear costs had doomed their near term prospects well before the recent Court decision,” Bradford said.
Meanwhile, a heat wave expected to hit the region today and stretching into the weekend, with coastal temperatures in the high 80s and inland thermometers expected to break into triple digits, will test the generating capacity of the southern California grid in perhaps the most trying time since San Onofre went offline in January.