Commentary: In an astounding ruling on April 23, 2020, the four-member U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) acknowledged that an application by Holtec International/Eddy-Lea [Counties] Energy Alliance to store a massive quantity of highly radioactive irradiated nuclear fuel in southeastern New Mexico violates federal law – and yet ruled that the unlawful provisions of the license application could be ignored and would not bar approval.
Beyond Nuclear has challenged the NRC’s authority to approve Holtec's license application because it contemplates that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) may become the owner of the irradiated reactor fuel. The federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) prohibits federal ownership of spent fuel, however, unless and until a federal repository for permanent disposal is operating.
The NRC Commissioners acknowledged that Federal law prohibits federally-sponsored storage of irradiated reactor fuel unless and until a repository for permanent disposal is in operation. Nevertheless the NRC threw out Beyond Nuclear’s legal challenge to the project on the ground that Holtec could be depended on not to implement the unlawful provision if the license were granted.
The Commissioners’ decision affirms an earlier ruling by the NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board that the storage facility may be licensed despite the illegal license terms contemplating federal ownership of the irradiated fuel. The Licensing Board accepted arguments by Holtec and the NRC’s technical staff that the license containing illegal provisions could be approved as long as it also contained a provision that would allow private ownership of the spent fuel.
Mindy Goldstein, a lawyer for Beyond Nuclear, stated, “the NRC’s decision flagrantly violates the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which prohibits an agency from acting contrary to the law as issued by Congress and signed by the President.” Goldstein also stated that “the Commission lacks a legal or logical basis for its rationale that the illegal provisions could be ignored in favor of other provisions that are legal, or that an illegal license could be issued in ‘hopes’ that the law might change in the future. The APA gives the NRC no excuse to ignore the mandates of federal law.”
Diane Curran, also a lawyer for Beyond Nuclear, said the group will pursue a federal court appeal of the NRC decision. “Our claim is simple,” she declared. “The NRC is not above the law.”
Kevin Kamps, radioactive waste specialist for Beyond Nuclear, called the federal Nuclear Waste Policy Act “the public’s best protection against an interim storage facility becoming a de facto permanent, national radioactive waste dump at the surface of the Earth.” According to Kamps, “Congress knew, in passing the NWPA, that the only safe long-term strategy for care of irradiated reactor fuel is to place it in a permanent repository for deep geologic isolation.
Congress acted wisely in refusing to allow nuclear reactor licensees to transfer ownership of their irradiated reactor fuel to the DOE until a repository was up and running. The carefully crafted Nuclear Waste Policy Act thus protects a state like New Mexico from being railroaded by the powerful nuclear industry, its friends in the federal government, and other states looking to off-load their mountain of forever deadly high-level radioactive waste."
Kamps added: "A deep geologic repository for permanent disposal should meet a long list of stringent criteria. These include legality, environmental justice, consent-based siting, scientific suitability, mitigation of transport risks, regional equity, intergenerational equity, and non-proliferation, including a ban on reprocessing. This is why a coalition of more than a thousand environmental, environmental justice, and public interest organizations, representing all 50 states, have opposed the Yucca Mountain dump targeted at Western Shoshone Indian land in Nevada for 33 years."
“On behalf of our members and supporters in New Mexico, and across the country along the road, rail, and waterway routes in most states, that would be used to haul the high risk, high-level radioactive waste out West, we will appeal the NRC Commissioners' bad ruling to the federal court,” Kamps added.
Beyond Nuclear is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership organization. Beyond Nuclear aims to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abolish both to safeguard our future. Beyond Nuclear advocates for an energy future that is sustainable, benign and democratic. The Beyond Nuclear team works with diverse partners and allies to provide the public, government officials, and the media with the critical information necessary to move humanity toward a world beyond nuclear. Beyond Nuclear: 7304 Carroll Avenue, #182, Takoma Park, MD 20912. Info@beyondnuclear.org. www.beyondnuclear.org.