President Obama has won wide bipartisan support for his determination to revive American nuclear power — a low-carbon energy solution that electric utilities and conservatives can support.
But a pair of legal actions last month could complicate matters for Washington by forcing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to address a longstanding and almost intractable problem: How and where to store the highly radioactive waste.
For many, the separate suits by state attorneys general and environmental groups raise fresh questions over why America is pouring billions into a nuclear renaissance with no long-term strategy for handling waste from the nation's existing facilities.
"The waste problem is the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry," said Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, a California-based nuclear watchdog.
On average, each of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors produces 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel annually — equivalent to the size and weight of 2,000 SUVs. The toxic brew is radioactive for eons. Plutonium-239, for instance, one of the industry's byproducts, has a half-life of about 24,000 years, according to NRC data.
"The one way to go is to ignore it," Hirsch said of the waste conundrum in an interview. "We'll get the electricity right now, and hope that several generations down the road someone else will figure out where to store [the waste]."
For now, at least, the attorneys general of New York and Vermont, and Connecticut's assistant attorney general, want environmental impact assessments conducted for waste that is stored on-site at nuclear power plants.
AG Lawsuit: Lack of Environmental Analysis Is Illegal
The trio filed a lawsuit on Feb. 16 suit against NRC, charging the agency with violating federal laws by not properly analyzing potential health, safety and environmental threats of the buried waste. The suit targets NRC's recently updated "Waste Confidence Rule."
In December 2010, NRC changed the rule, doubling the amount of time that waste can be stored on-site from 30 years after a plant goes out of service to 60 years. Now, it appears the agency might double that again.
In an interview with SolveClimate News, NRC spokesperson Neil Sheehan said a plan was underway to allow the high-level waste to be stored on-site for over 120 years.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who announced the lawsuit just miles from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Westchester, N.Y., said citizens deserve to know if these rule changes carry risks.
"Our communities deserve a thorough review of the environmental, public health, and safety risks such a move would present," said Schneiderman. "This is not just a safety and environmental issue, but also one that could affect property values."
Entergy: 'No Evidence' Storage is Unsafe
At Indian Point, one of the oldest reactors in the country, 30 tons of enriched uranium radioactive waste is produced every 18 months, most of which is crammed into 40-foot deep pools at each of the two reactors.
Currently, each pool holds about 1,000 tons of radioactive waste. An additional 1,500 tons are stored in 15 dry casks on an open tarmac surrounded by barbed wire and a surveillance tower.
Across the country, 50,000 metric tons of waste was produced through the end of 2003, according to a 2005 report by the National Research Council. The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that by 2015 there will be over 75,000 metric tons of radioactive waste stored at temporary sites.
Indian Point will close in 2035, if it gets relicensed. Under the new waste storage rule, spent fuel would be stored there until 2095, and could remain on-site well into the 22nd century if the rule extends to 120 years.
Jerry Nappi of New Orleans-based Entergy, the company that owns Indian Point, told SolveClimate News that the waste is stored "in enormously strong and long-lasting steel and concrete containers in accordance with federal regulations.
"There is no reason or evidence to suggest they are unsafe."
The agency insists that its Waste Confidence Rule is legally sound and says safety issues have been evaluated.
"The NRC has carried out numerous studies on the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel at U.S. power reactor sites. These include a complete reexamination of spent fuel pool safety and security issues following the 9/11 attacks," the agency said in response to the lawsuit.
Enviros: NRC Dangerously Vague on Post-Yucca Plans
But the states are not the only ones not taking NRC's word for it.
Less than a week after the attorneys general sued, environmental organizations petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn two NRC rules that say storage and disposal of radioactive waste poses no significant safety or environmental concerns.