Legal motions filed Thursday by 25 environmental and anti-nuclear groups claim the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is legally required to slow down the licensing and relicensing of U.S. nuclear reactors after NRC's own review of the Fukushima disaster and resulting recommendations.
Among the licenses at 18 plants mentioned in the filings are TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant's nearly finished Unit 2 in Spring City, Tenn., and the unfinished Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala.
Watts Bar's new $2.5 billion reactor is expected to be completed in 2013, and the proposed completion of Bellefonte is on the Tennessee Valley Authority board agenda for Thursday.
Louis Zeller is an attorney with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, one of the groups filing the motion aimed at Bellefonte. He called the filings administrative legal actions "with all the trappings of lawsuits."
"The [NRC] task force made some good, sound recommendations in its review of Fukushima," Zeller said. "But what we're afraid of is that those recommendations will sit on the shelf [at NRC] and the agency will proceed as if nothing happened. So our job is to make them take these recommendations into account before these plants are licensed."
The NRC's Japan task force, made up of six senior NRC officials, reviewed the lessons learned from the meltdowns and radioactive releases at the Fukushima-Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant after a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.
Their report, issued in mid-July, made 12 recommendations, including changes to "defense-in-depth" measures to prepare for events such as earthquakes, flooding and tornadoes, which can come stacked together. The task force also called for a "logical, systematic and coherent regulatory framework" to replace the U.S. nuclear regulations developed "piece-by-piece over the decades."
Zeller said NRC and the utilities have 25 days to file legal responses. Then the petitioners have 10 days to reply to those responses.
NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said TVA's license requests for Watts Bar 2 and Bellefonte "remain under review."
"The agency will review the groups' filings and will respond appropriately in each current proceeding," Ledford said.
TVA spokesman Ray Golden said the NRC task force's study "is a good start," but many in the nuclear industry think more deliberative review is needed.
In the meantime, he said, it's too early to know how the environmental groups' filings might impact TVA.
"We understand there's a public participation process," he said "We have already publicly stated that we have been watching very closely what happens at Fukushima, and we have made some changes."
TVA formed its own review team to apply "lessons learned" from the Japan nuclear meltdowns.
Sara Barczak is a program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which filed the motion aimed at Watts Bar's new reactor. She said it makes sense to implement the lessons learned from Fukushima before the licenses are issued.
"This is not an environmental petition. It's very safety focused," she said. "And it just makes sense to do those [recommended] things now, before billions more [dollars] are spent and then there still are problems to fix."
Jim Warren is with NC Warn, a group challenging the licensing of any AP1000 reactor design, including a new one planned at Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Ga. Critics have said the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design is more susceptible to cracks in its reactor vessel than other reactors.
He said NRC's five commissioners "are strongly waffling" on the task force recommendations.
"The [nuclear] industry is putting enormous pressure on the NRC because utilities already are spending large amounts of money" on site preparations, pre-licensing construction and new plant designs.
TVA's board already has approved $248 million for engineering work at the mothballed and cannibalized Bellefonte. The plant, started in 1974, already has cost more than $4 billion and TVA officials have said it could cost another $4 billion to $5 billion to complete.
TVA's board agenda for next week also contains a item about Sequoyah Nuclear Plant's relicensing.
"The NRC has already publicly stated ... that U.S. nuclear plants remain safe for continued operation," Golden said.
NRC's Ledford said the regulator also has stated that any post-Fukushima regulatory changes adopted will apply to all U.S. reactors, "whether their licenses have been renewed or not."