3 states' nuclear petition rejected

December 22, 2009

By Susan Smallheer

STAFF WRITER   Rutland Herald

BRATTLEBORO – The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a petition from three Northeast states that sought to have the issue of the safety of spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants considered in any relicensing review.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York had all petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to change its rules to include their safety concerns about the spent fuel contained in nuclear power plant's reactor buildings in any re-licensing review.

The NRC had rejected the states' petitions, and the matter landed in front of the 2nd Circuit, which is based in New York City.


"As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given due consideration to the relevant studies concerning the rulemaking petitions, we must defer to its expertise in determining the proper risk level associated with the storage of nuclear material in spent fuel pools," wrote the court in a decision released Monday.


The attorneys general of the three states, Andrew Cuomo of New York, Martha Coakley of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, had independently filed for the issue to be added to the NRC's relicensing review.


The Vermont attorney general's office had petitioned to be included in the appeal in May, saying the risks of the spent fuel pool at Vermont Yankee needed to be included in relicensing. But the high court dismissed the state's petition, saying its concerns were already being raised by other states and as a result it was not directly involved in the decision.


Massachusetts had claimed the impact of an accident at the Pilgrim nuclear reactor, which is in Plymouth, Mass., and is considered Vermont Yankee's sister plant. Massachusetts also cited the potential for problems at Vermont Yankee since the plant is so close to the state line.


The states had asked the NRC to reverse its 1996 "generic environmental impact statement," which stated that spent fuel pools did not pose a significant environmental pact as defined by the National Environmental Policy Act.


Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said states wanted the NRC to require site-specific reviews, while the NRC has considered such risks on a generic basis. "The NRC believes spent fuel storage to be an issue that should be evaluated on an ongoing basis, and the agency has, post-9/11, required plants to put in place increased security and mitigation strategies for spent fuel pools," said Sheehan.


Raymond Shadis, senior technical advisor for the New England Coalition, a Brattleboro-based anti-nuclear group, said spent fuel pools posed significant threats, and only more so since the terrorist attacks of 2001.


He said while the NRC has been reviewing the issue of spent fuel pools for years, including it in the relicensing debate made good sense.


"It's just a matter of prudence to reexamine all of the larger threats that exist with running a nuclear reactor, including the spent fuel pools, even through the companies are shifting as fast as they can to dry cask storage," said Shadis.


He pointed out that every reactor in the country was storing high-level radioactive waste in the pools "much more densely than originally anticipated …" because of the lack of a national waste storage site.


"The Vermont Yankee structures are extremely strong and designed to withstand massive internal and external forces such as earthquakes and tornadoes," said Vermont Yankee spokesman Robert Williams in an e-mail. "The combination of robust design and intensive security make nuclear plants the best defended industrial facilities that are part of the nation's infrastructure."