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Nuclear reactor licensing in USA – an uncertain future

An Uncertain Phase for Nuclear Power Licenses NYT By MATTHEW L. WALD , August 9, 2012 In a rare action, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has acceded to a petition filed by anti-nuclear groups that it halt some licensing activities until the agency can sort out its troubled policy on nuclear waste….

.. The crux of the waste issue is that for years, the commission has licensed reactors on the assumption that the federal government would eventually establish a disposal system for spent fuel. An official policy known as the “waste confidence decision” stated, in typical commission lingo, that there was “reasonable assurance” that a burial place would eventually be available and that the fuel could in the meantime be stored in spent fuel pools or on site in dry casks without significant environmental risks.

But in June the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that in reaching this conclusion, the commission did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, a law that mandates that environmental impact studies be issued before such a finding is reached.

The commission is now pondering whether it can fix the problem by issuing a broad generic statement about the safety of storage in pools and dry casks or whether it will have to do a reactor-by-reactor review.

Geologic storage is off the table for the time being, with the Obama administration having told the Energy Department to kill the Yucca Mountain project on a volcanic ridge in the Nevada desert.

Pending a reassessment of the nuclear waste issue, the commission’s five members voted 5-0 on Wednesday to suspend final issuance of license renewals and new operating licenses.But as with many disputes in the nuclear industry, it’s complicated. The reactors, it turns out, do not need a license renewal to keep running.

The commission has a “timely renewal doctrine,” not unlike what some other federal agencies practice, that allows the status quo to remain while the agency deliberates. “If you are already in the queue, when you cross the end of your license and renewal is under consideration, you can continue operating,’’ said Eliot Brenner, a spokesman. The plant’s operator, Entergy, had to apply for a renewal five years before the license was due to expire, and did so in 2007…. http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/09/an-uncertain-phase-for-nuclear-power-licenses/

Utilities applying for licenses for other plants will have to wait, although no groundbreakings were likely in the near future anyway. Two twin-unit plants in the South, Vogtle 3 and 4 in Georgia and Summer 2 and 3 in South Carolina, already have combined construction and operating licenses. A spokesman for the commission said that the moratorium order was silent on those licenses, so those reactors could proceed. Vogtle 3 and Summer 2 are both scheduled to begin commercial operation in 2016.

Utilities applying for licenses for other plants will have to wait, although no groundbreakings were likely in the near future anyway. Many plants have applied for permission to raise their power output, and some of those approvals may also be delayed.

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August 10, 2012 - Posted by | Legal, USA

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