On the heels of a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an order last week suspending final decisions in reactor licensing cases. The recent court ruling struck down elements of the NRC’s Waste Confidence Decision (WCD), which, according to the NRC, “undergirds certain agency licensing decisions.” The suspension affects issuances of both new construction licenses and reactor license renewals that are dependent on the WCD or temporary storage rules. The NRC did not rule out taking action with respect to waste confidence on a case-by-case basis.

In New York v. NRC, the D.C. Circuit held that it “cannot defer to the Commission’s conclusions regarding temporary storage because the Commission did not conduct a sufficient analysis of the environmental risks.”   Petitioners challenged a 2010 update to the WCD, which has five findings about nuclear waste storage upon which the NRC based its rules on temporary storage. The NRC amended the WCD to state that a permanent repository for nuclear waste would be available “when necessary,” instead of “in the first quarter of the twenty-first century,” as the earlier draft stated. The NRC also extended the time horizon for safe storage of waste at reactor sites from 30 to 60 years beyond the licensed life of the plant. With regard to both amendments, the D.C. Circuit found that the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Court determined that the WCD constituted a “major federal action” under NEPA and therefore the NRC must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement or an Environmental Assessment that makes a Finding of No Significant Impact.

This decision by the NRC comes less than one month after Dr. Allison Macfarlane was sworn in as the NRC’s Chairman. Macfarlane holds a Ph.D. in geology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served on the Blue Ribbon Commission, and was most recently an associate professor of environmental science and policy. As an academic, Macfarlane was critical of the process that selected Yucca Mountain, a site that was long-considered to host a geologic repository until President Obama cancelled the project in 2010. For example, in 2003 Macfarlane wrote that “politics probably played as significant a role as science in the selection of Yucca Mountain” and argued that scientific studies and outcomes were oriented around the policy goal of approving Yucca Mountain. 

Earlier this year, the NRC issued licenses for new reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia, the first licenses issued for new construction in a generation, and also issued licenses for two new reactors in South Carolina. The NRC has 16 applications for new licenses pending and an additional fourteen license renewals awaiting decisions.