US regulators freeze nuclear approvals


The nuclear sector – already struggling with spiralling costs, cancelled plans and policy uncertainty – had another piece of bad news this week, when US regulators decided to freeze issuing licenses for new reactors while they work out how to comply with a court decision on waste storage. As World Nuclear News reported: 

Licences for US nuclear plants – including those for new construction and life extension – will not be issued until the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) addresses a court decision on waste confidence…On 8 June, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the NRC’s rules for the temporary storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste stood in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. This requires that either an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement be prepared for all major government agency actions. 

The rule under scrutiny is a 2010 update to the NRC’s rules on waste, which allows temporary storage of spent fuel on the site of nuclear plants even after their licence has expired. 

The World Nuclear Association pointed out that no licensing decisions were expected before mid 2013 in any case and that “all licensing reviews and related proceedings are unaffected” by the freeze. But not everyone was so glib about the impacts on nuclear construction plans – Platts reported that Tuesday’s decision could delay Duke Energy’s plans for two new reactors in Florida.

Since Fukushima, concerns about nuclear development have focused largely on the potential impacts of natural disaster on an up-and-running plant, adding to mounting scepticism about cost thanks to the massively over budget projects in Finland and France (for more on Europe’s nuclear woes see “Nuclear Europe: a dream unwinding”). This news is a reminder that nuclear waste storage is another, major piece of a puzzle that is looking increasingly hard to fit together.