The Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday voted to halt final decisions on granting new and renewed licenses for reactors nationwide following a June court ruling that said the agency first must assess the environmental risks of storing radioactive waste.
The move could mean a potentially years-long delay of final decisions on as many as 19 pending nuclear power plant licenses, including a proposal to renew those for the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City.
But NRC spokesman David McIntyre stressed that the agency will continue reviewing existing applications. Licensing applications can still continue under the NRC order up until a final decision would be made, he said.
“This isn’t saying that we’re not going to issue licenses for years; it’s saying, hold on, we need to take a breath and determine a path forward,” McIntyre said. “The commission could come out with a path forward that says you can continue to do these things but you have to address waste confidence in some way.”
Kevin Book, an analyst with ClearView Energy Partners, said in a research note for clients that while the NRC’s move prompted “stark-sounding headlines,” it is unlikely to have “substantive incremental impact on pending license extension applications.”
At issue is how the U.S. stores spent fuel rods while decades-old nuclear reactors continue to churn out power, without a clear plan on where to stash it permanently. The Obama administration ordered the Energy Department to rescind an application for building a long-term storage site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
In June, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned the NRC’s so-called “waste confidence” rule, which said spent fuel could be safely stored for 60 years or more at the site of existing plants. The court ruled that the NRC was obligated to study the environmental risks of allowing that radioactive material to remain at reactors for decades.
The court also rapped the NRC for failing to consider the environmental effects of not finding permanent off-site storage for nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain or anywhere else.
The NRC is now studying its full response, including possibly launching an environmental impact study that would span years before a new waste confidence rule could be finalized.
Book noted that the agency has several options. “The NRC has not yet decided how it will fix the failing identified by the court,” he said, “but that won’t close operating plants.”
In an order issued Tuesday, the commission said it would give the public an opportunity to comment on its decisions, including the breadth of any future environmental reviews.
Nuclear foes and environmental activists that challenged the NRC’s waste storage rule cheered the move.
“A thorough study of the environmental impacts of storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel” is long overdue, said attorney Diane Curran, who represented some of the groups that brought the case. “That study should have been done years ago, but NRC just kept kicking the can down the road.”
Existing licenses for the two units at the South Texas nuclear plant are set to expire in 2027 and 2028. In October 2010, the South Texas Project Nuclear Operating Co., asked the NRC to renew the licenses.
That kicked off a long multi-year review process slated to end with a final decision in mid 2013.
The two units at the plant are pressurized-water nuclear reactors.
San Antonio’s city-owned utility, CPS Energy, owns the South Texas Project along with Austin Energy and NRG Energy Inc.