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Editorial: The nuclear-waste hot potato

At the Indian Point nuclear power plant in

At the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, some 2,300 spent nuclear fuel rods are kept on site. They await transfer to permanent storage. (Photo, April 20, 2007) Credit: AP

The question of how to store highly radioactive nuclear fuel rods -- a major unresolved issue clouding the future of nuclear power -- is now more complex than it was before.

A federal appeals court ruling makes clear that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must finally get serious about studying the safety of spent nuclear fuel stored on site at plants across the country. That decision has made it tougher for Entergy, which operates the Indian Point Energy Center on the Hudson River in Westchester County, to get operating license renewals for two reactors. Unit 2's license expires in September 2013 and Unit 3's in December 2015. Even before the ruling, there was a long list of issues facing the renewal effort.

The ruling, in a lawsuit that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed weeks after he took office in 2011, is a welcome turn of events for the 17 million of us who live within 50 miles of Indian Point.

What it means is the NRC will no longer be able to live in fantasyland, hoping vaguely that the stars will align and Congress will clear the way for a national geologic repository for this waste. Actually, Congress did designate a site, Nevada's Yucca Mountain, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), opposed it. In 2010, President Barack Obama kept a campaign promise and withdrew the adminstration's support. Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee, has straddled the issue. So at best, Yucca is moribund.

 

Meanwhile, despite the politics, the NRC has relied on the hope that there will be a national repository someday, and it has avoided a close look at the impacts of keeping more than 60,000 tons of waste on site at nuclear plants.

It's not yet clear whether this month's ruling by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit will force the commission to examine storage pools at each of the 65 nuclear plants, with 104 reactors, individually -- or as a whole. There's a good argument to be made that, if any plant deserves specific examination of its spent fuel pools, it's Indian Point, given its location close to New York City and near an earthquake fault.

This issue will be a day-one item for Obama's nominee to chair the NRC, Allison Macfarlane, a geologist who served on a presidential commission on nuclear waste. She's been a staunch opponent of Yucca Mountain.

The NRC used to maintain that a central geologic repository was technically feasible, that it would be available by 2007-09, and that spent fuel could be stored safely for 30 years beyond the licensed life of each plant. In 2010, with Yucca mostly dead, the NRC changed its mind and said a central repository would be available "when necessary," and that now waste could be safely stored at plants for 60 years.

That vague, wishful thinking persuaded Schneiderman, whose campaign platform included closing Indian Point, to sue. Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, and others, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and Riverkeeper, joined. The goal: Force the NRC to review the environmental, health and safety effects of storing waste at the plants.

 

All this makes renewing the two operating licenses at Indian Point tougher, but not impossible. If they're not renewed, nuclear power opponents will be pleased, but the state will still have to replace the power. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has long wanted Indian Point closed, has an "energy highway" proposal, to upgrade and modernize the state's electrical system, that is moving forward slowly but is unlikely to replace the power in time. He may have to find another -- perhaps more costly -- way to keep the lights on. Meanwhile, it's critical that the NRC, as the court demanded, get serious about spent-fuel safety.

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