MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Attorneys general in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut announced Thursday they are petitioning the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a more thorough environmental review of storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste at plant sites.
It was another effort by states to turn up the pressure on federal agencies to keep a promise Washington made 30 years ago but has yet to fulfill: that it would take possession of and find a permanent disposal site for what's now more than 70,000 tons of waste piling up at the nation's 104 commercial reactors.
"Federal law requires that the NRC analyze the environmental dangers of storing spent nuclear fuel at reactors that were not designed for long-term storage," said Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.
In a landmark ruling last year, a federal appeals court in Washington said the NRC needed to do a full environmental review of the risks of storing the waste — spent nuclear fuel — in storage pools and casks made of steel and concrete on the grounds of nuclear plants while the search continues for a disposal solution.
The NRC has been working on new rules for safe waste storage since that decision. On Thursday, the attorneys general petitioned the five-member commission to reject the recommendations of its staff, arguing that those recommendations did not adequately address the risks of spent fuel storage.
"NRC staff is continuing to ignore serious public health, safety and environmental risks related to long-term, on-site storage," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a news release. "The communities that serve as de facto long-term radioactive waste repositories deserve a full and detailed accounting of the risks."
Exposure to high-level radioactive waste can be lethal, and the material needs to be isolated for at least thousands of years while its radioactivity dissipates. One court decision related to the decades-long controversy over Nevada's Yucca Mountain specified an isolation period of 1 million years.
The questions have become all the more urgent since the Obama administration decided in 2010 to scrap plans for a waste dump at Yucca Mountain in the face of stiff opposition, including from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
With no alternative plan on the horizon, "NRC must consider the environmental implications of existing waste storage at reactor sites based on the reasonable assumption that such wastes will remain at the sites forever," the states said in their petition.
Flaws in the NRC's review to date, the attorneys general said, include that it has not given adequate consideration to two alternatives:
— A rule saying that after five years cooling in specially constructed pools, the waste would have to be moved to hardened concrete and steel casks on plant grounds. That would leave much less radioactive material in spent fuel pools that have been described as more vulnerable to earthquakes or terrorist attacks.
— "The alternative of not allowing further production of spent fuel until the NRC determines that there is a safe and environmentally acceptable permanent waste repository to receive the additional spent fuel." Not allowing further production of spent fuel would mean shutting down the entire U.S. nuclear industry.
NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency was not contemplating any step that drastic but would apply its normal petition review process to the states' filing.
"Since we consider both spent fuel pools and dry cask storage to be safe means of storing this material, there is no need to halt plant operations while efforts to move forward with an interim and/or permanent national repository continue," Sheehan said in an email.
Steven Kerekes, a spokesman with the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, said he would leave it to the NRC to "speak to how and whether this petition fits into its well-established National Environmental Policy Act and rulemaking processes."
"The larger issue is used fuel management; nuclear energy facilities are storing used nuclear fuel safely and securely. They will continue to do so throughout this process and beyond," Kerekes added.
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Top Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy made up 9 percent of all energy consumed in 2011, according to the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>, and that number is <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/er/pdf/0383er(2013).pdf">predicted to grow throughout the next decade</a>. Here's a breakdown of the top sources of renewable energy in the country, from wind to water and everything in between. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Solar Power - 2 Percent
Solar power and photovoltaic cells make up the smallest percentage of U.S. renewable energy production, but its future looks fairly promising. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/warren-buffett-solar-power_n_2398816.html">invested $2.5 billion in Calif. solar company SunPower</a> earlier this year. Also, unlike other sources of renewables, energy can also be generated by small-scale solar installations (like on the rooftop of a home or business), and<a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=8570"> declining costs</a> have made solar much more affordable. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Geothermal - 2 Percent
Geothermal power captures naturally occurring heat from the earth to turn it into power. The renewable source is geographically dependent, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=3970">but the Western half of the U.S.</a> has many promising locations for power plants, <a href="http://www.geysers.com/">like The Geysers in Calif.</a>, the largest geothermal power plant in the world. The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal power on the planet, but growth hasn't kept up with wind or solar development in recent years. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Waste - 5 Percent
Believe it or not, burned garbage accounts for 5 percent of all renewable energy created in the U.S. each year. More than 29 million tons of municipal solid waste was burned in 2010 to create steam to spin turbines and generate power, <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=7990"> and there are more than 75</a> waste-to-energy plants in the country. Emissions regulations have been in place at waste incineration plants since the 1960s, but the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/ncer/publications/research_results_needs/combustionEmmissionsReport.pdf">EPA warned in a 2006 report that the toxins released</a> during the process could pose a serious environmental risk if not strictly enforced. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wind - 13 Percent
The amount of wind power has grown for each of the past three years throughout the U.S. and accounted for the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=9931">largest growth in capacity</a> of any energy resource in the country last year. Wind turbines now supply more than <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/19/us-utilities-windpower-usa-idUSBRE89I0TX20121019">50,000 megawatts a year,</a> enough to power 13 million homes, according to Reuters. Federal tax credits, which were set to expire at the end of 2012, have made wind farms an attractive form of renewable energy. Congress <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelevitan/2013/01/02/wind-power-tax-credit-survives-fiscal-cliff-deal/">approved an extension of the credits</a> through the end of 2013. After production, wind turbines are net zero, meaning they require no energy and produce no emissions. The only problematic thing generated in some cases other than clean power has been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/24/wind-power-noise-pollution-maine_n_866182.html">a whole lot of noise</a>. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Biofuel - 21 Percent
Biofuels, like ethanol, are created from organic matter like corn or soybeans. Gasoline in the U.S. contains 9 percent of the resource by federal mandate under the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/otaq/fuels/renewablefuels/index.htm">Renewable Fuel Standard program,</a> and more than <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">40 percent of the corn crop</a> last year was turned into biofuel. The resource is slightly more unstable than other renewables because it depends on the productivity of farms - <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/10/us-should-change-biofuel-_n_1764735.html">drought or other environmental problems</a> can significantly lower yields and increase prices. On average, <a href="http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html">ethanol has 20 percent fewer emissions</a> than traditional gasoline but some types, like <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol">cellulosic ethanol,</a> cut greenhouse gas emissions more than 85 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Wood - 22 Percent
Timber accounts for nearly a quarter of all renewable energy created in the country. <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2012/10/121022-wood-for-heating/">Rising energy costs </a>have led to an upswing in wood burning over the past decade, and nearly <a href="http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/report/winterfuels.cfm">20 percent of New England homes </a>use wood for heating, according to a National Geographic report. Although it may be a cheaper alternative, wood burning stoves and fireplaces<a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/energyefficiency.html"> release more emissions of fine particles </a> than other home heating methods, according to the EPA. Burning <a href="http://www.epa.gov/burnwise/bestburn.html">good wood in an efficient burner</a> lowers toxic emissions and lost energy. Oh, and always have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors handy. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
Hydroelectric - 35 Percent
Almost all of the current hydroelectric power plants in the U.S. were <a href="http://www.eia.gov/energy_in_brief/article/hydropower.cfm">built before the mid-1970's</a>, but it's still the highest producing renewable energy source in the country. In 2011, 8 percent of all power created in the U.S. came from hydroelectric sources, but it's also one of the most geographically dependent sources of energy. The Pacific Northwest gets more than half of all power via hydroelectric due to prime geography. <em>Information courtesy of the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/perspectives.cfm">U.S. Energy Information Agency</a>.</em>
How To Really Go Renewable
Watch this TED talk on the missing link in the future of renewable energy.