The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a plan Tuesday to allow nuclear wastes to be stored on site at nuclear plants, ending a two-year suspension of new plant licenses over waste concerns and clearing the way for the Tennessee Valley Authority to add another reactor at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.
The NRC vote on the controversial rules for radioactive waste disposal came in response to a 2012 federal court ruling that struck down the previous nuclear waste approach. The court ordered the NRC to re-evaluate its waste rules after the Obama administration in 2010 quit building a permanent storage repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada that was supposed to handle nuclear wastes from U.S. reactors.
The NRC's final rules adopted Tuesday allow radioactive wastes generated from reactors to be stored in spent fuel ponds or dry storage casks at each of the 103 commercial reactors in the United States.
TVA has stored nuclear wastes in dry castes for the past decade at both its Sequoyah and Browns Ferry nuclear plants. But the federal utility needed NRC approval for new on-site storage to proceed with the licensing of the Unit 2 reactor at Watts Bar.
Anti-nuclear groups had urged the NRC to delay Tuesday's vote until outgoing commissioner Bill Magwood -- who critics claim had a conflict of interest because of his future job -- could vote on the measure. The NRC board and Magwood insisted the time had come for a final vote on the generic environmental impact study released last year.
TVA welcomed the decision to allow storage of nuclear wastes at each plant so that TVA can proceed with securing regulatory approval next year to load nuclear fuel and begin power generation by December 2015 at Watts Bar Unit 2.
"It's certainly encouraging to get this decision made," TVA spokesman Duncan Mansfield said. "We'll have to see what happens from here."
Tuesday's ruling, which is still subject to public review over the next month before it becomes effective, should allow the NRC to move ahead with new licenses and license extensions, which have been on hold since August 2012.
"The completion of this rulemaking is an important step that will facilitate final decisions on industry licensing actions," said Ellen Ginsberg, general counsel for the nuclear industry trade group, Nuclear Energy Institute.
Environmental critics questioned the NRC vote and indicated they may appeal the decision.
"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to analyze the long-term environmental consequences of indefinite storage of highly toxic and radioactive nuclear waste, the risks of which are apparent to any observer of history over the past 50 years," said Geoffrey Fettus, lead counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Environmental groups may again sue the NRC, which could lead to a lengthy court battle that might delay the startup of the Watts Bar plant if a court again directs NRC license decisions to wait on new waste disposal rules.
Mary Olsen, southeast regional coordinator for the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, blasted the decision to allow continued storage of nuclear wastes throughout the country.
"This waste is lethal for centuries and causes cancer, infertility, birth defects and other harms to members of the public, as well as every other life form exposed," she said.
But Mansfield said dry cask storage "is an accepted standard across the industry.
"The casks are designed to withstand earthquakes, flooding and other potential issues," he said.
Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree press.com or 757-6340.