The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision to double the time nuclear plants can store spent fuel on site from 30 to 60 years is unacceptable, state Department of Environmental Protection Commission Robert Martin said.
"The federal government has an obligation to develop a permanent plan for nuclear waste storage and cannot avoid an answer by extending the time that radioactive waste is allowed to remain on sites in New Jersey and across the nation," Martin said. "That is not acceptable."
New Jersey is seeking to join New York, Vermont and Connecticut in a legal challenge of the NRC's revised "waste confidence rule" that extends the time spent nuclear fuel can be stored on-site at a nuclear power plant from 30 t0 60 years after the plant shuts down operations.
“We are joining in this challenge because of the potential of significant public health and safety implications, and the potential impact on New Jersey’s environment,’’ Martin said.
The challenge claims the NRC acted in an "arbitrary and capricious manner" and failed to provide information on the environmental impact as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
“The failure of the NRC to conduct an adequate environmental impact statement is troubling," Martin said.
'Invitation for Disaster'
New Jersey is home to four nuclear plants, including the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station off Route 9. Oyster Creek is the oldest nuclear plant in the United States.
Ocean County Sierra Club Chairman Gregory Auriemma said his organization and many other environmental groups support the states' challenge to the NRC storage rule change.
"To say those spent fuel rods can be safely stored for more than 60 years, that makes absolutely no sense," Auriemma said. "That's just an invitation for disaster. Sixty years is an absurdly long period of time to have the sword of Damocles hanging over Ocean County's head."
Lacey Township Mayor Gary Quinn isn't happy about the NRC's revised storage rule.
“The town’s position is very, very clear," Quinn said. "We’re 100 percent opposed to it. We didn’t sign on to have that material stored there for any extended period of time when we took the plant in as a neighbor."
Oyster Creek has spent fuel rods stored in the reactor building and in dry casks on the site, said NRC spokesperson Diane Screnci.
A consent order between the DEP and Exelon Corp., Oyster Creek's owner, allows the company to store its spent nuclear fuel at Oyster Creek until the federal Department of Energy accepts it for permanent storage at a geological repository. But last year, federal government officials announced that they were no longer going to create a nuclear fuel depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Although Quinn said he is not concerned from a safety standpoint, he does not want the casks stored on-site for an indefinite period of time, he said.
If that does happen, Lacey and surrounding communities should be compensated for storing the spent fuel, Quinn said.
“The federal government has been collecting dollars from the taxpayers for the nuclear power plant for years to build [a nuclear fuel depository in Nevada]," Quinn said. "Money is still being sent to Washington. But if that’s not going to occur, the money should be sent back to the municipalities playing the host of the nuclear power plants.”
'Solid Legal Foundation' to Boost Storage
The NRC has done numerous studies on the safety of storing spent fuel at power reactor sites in the United States, NRC spokesman Neil A. Sheehan said.
“We believe the waste confidence rule has a solid legal foundation that is well explained in the commission’s decision," Sheehan said. "The rule is in full accord with earlier court decisions interpreting the commission’s obligations under NEPA.”
The NRC re-examined spent fuel pool safety and security issues after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The commission deemed it safe to store the spent fuel in either circulating-water pools or dry casks for at least 60 years after the reactor is shut down, Sheehan said.
The NRC will assess the environmental impacts and safety of spent fuel and high-level waste storage at nuclear power plants beyond 120 years, he said.
The research will take several years and will involve numerous opportunities for public input," Sheehan said.
Exelon spokesperson April Schilpp said the company was "confident" that spent nuclear fuel could be safely stored for 60 years.
"It’s not at all a safety issue," she said. "It’s a matter of not having any place else to put it, of course.”
New Jersey's operating nuclear plants also include Hope Creek in Alloways Township and two units at the Salem Nuclear Generating Station, also in Alloways Township.
Company officials announced in December that Oyster Creek would cease operation in 2019, 10 years before its federal operating license expires.
Lacey Township is in a "unique" situation because of Oyster Creek's age and the fact that fuel is already stored in dry casks, Quinn said.
“In our situation, it’s probably more of an issue because we have the oldest plant in the country, and we have a lot of materials already sitting in these casks out on the site itself,” Quinn said.