A three-member panel of the D.C. Federal Court of Appeals said yesterday that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission must reconsider whether spent nuclear fuel can safely be stored until a solution to the problem of permanent disposal is found, or even if such a solution never is found. The decision by the District of Columbia court, which has influence second only to the Supreme Court in matters of public policy, is bound to have a wide impact on current practices, proceedings for renewing reactor operating licenses, and future waste policy development.
Explaining the background to the suit, which was brought by New York State and a group of intervenors, the court wrote, "Due to the government’s failure to establish a final resting place for spent [nuclear] fuel , SNF is currently stored on site at nuclear plants. This type of storage, optimistically labeled 'temporary storage,' has been used for decades longer than originally anticipated. The delay has required plants to expand storage pools and to pack SNF more densely within them. The lack of progress on a permanent repository has caused considerable uncertainty regarding the environmental effects of temporary SNF storage and the reasonableness of continuing to license and relicense nuclear reactors."
A national plan adopted in the 1990s called for a permanent geologic storage facility to be built at Yucca Mountain, near the former nuclear weapons test site in Nevada, but that plan ran into sharp local opposition, fueled in part by scientific uncertainty as to whether the underground facility would be impervious to water intrusion over thousands of years. President Obama killed the plan after taking office, fulfilling a campaign commitment. In the meantime, reactors were regularly relicensed on the basis of findings by the NRC that spent fuel could be safely stored in cooling ponds and dry casks until such time as a permanent resting place was found. But then, last year, the catatrophe at Japan's Fukushima plant— and in particular a fire that broke out in a spent fuel pond—refocused attention in the United States (and elsewhere) on whether spent fuel is in fact safe in increasingly crowded ponds.
The D.C. court panel unanimously took the NRC to task for neglecting to assess the safety of individual storage ponds across the country (treating the problem of cooling pond safety generically instead). The court also chided the agency for not adequately considering the possibility that water might leak from ponds and fuel might subsequently ignite. According to Matthew Wald, who has covered spent nuclear fuel disposal authoritatively for many years at the New York Times, the NRC will now have to "prepare and publicly defend an assessment that [local] storage for many decades or even indefinitely [does] not entail large risks." And that assessment will again be open to challenge in reactor licensing proceedings.
That, in turn, would appear to have two other obvious implications. One is that pressure will mount further for accelerated movement of spent fuel out of crowded ponds and into safer dry casks. As noted here this time last year, a much larger fraction of U.S. spent fuel could be in dry casks than is the case at present. Second, the new chairwoman of the NRC, who happens to be a well-regarded geologist, has her work cut out for her. Finding a new approach to the problem of permanent spent fuel disposal will be hugely difficult and perhaps impossible. But Allison M. Macfarlane at least appears to be about as well qualified for the job as one could hope.