…it’s no surprise — and it’s not over yet!
On February 26, 2013, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office lost a bid to force the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to consider new information about public safety and environmental risks from the continued operation of Entergy’s Pilgrim nuclear reactor. A copy of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals decision is here: Mass AG v NRC
The Attorney General tried to argue that Fukushima nuclear disaster revealed new information about high level nuclear waste spent fuel pool fires and core damage events that should be considered before Pilgrim was relicensed for 20 years, beyond its 40 year life. These “events” would release large amounts of radioactive material throughout the region, with unimaginable consequences.
The Court ruled in favor of Entergy and the NRC, and would not let the AG proceed with the challenge. No surprise there! Winning a court case against the NRC and the nuclear industry is extremely difficult. This is because the law that created the NRC, called the Atomic Energy Act, gives the NRC expansive powers to make the rules about who can challenge their decisions. As the Court said, the Atomic Energy Act is “a regulatory scheme which is virtually unique in the degree to which broad responsibility is reposed in the administering agency [the NRC]….” The Act is pro-industry, and the NRC, in making more rules (called regulations) on who can challenge its decisions, has taken that mission to heart: protect the industry, shut out public interest advocates.
In the February 26 decision, the Court said the AG did not meet NRC procedural standards for getting a hearing on the safety issues. The Court also said the AG was barred from bringing the case under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the NRC to take a “hard look” at environmental impacts.
The Court’s decision does not mean Pilgrim is “safe.” In fact, the Court said the NRC still has to make Entergy fix numerous defects at Pilgrim, even though Pilgrim was relicensed. There are three types of defects at Pilgrim the NRC deciding whether Entergy must fix as a result of Fukushima: lack of filtered vents for emergencies, inadequate ways to figure out the water level in the spent nuclear waste fuel pool, and inadequate core cooling containment. As we speak, industry is lobbying the NRC to say “no fixes”, claiming they are too expensive and unwarranted. Today, the New York Times wrote about this.
The NRC isn’t the only one who gets to say how Pilgrim operates, however. State and local officials have a say, too. Entergy must meet state and local environmental and zoning laws. Admittedly, state and local authority over Pilgrim is limited, but it does exist. Unfortunately, Massachusetts state regulators are taking a hands off approach on Entergy’s water pollution. Other officials are looking the other way while Entergy builds a $165 million nuclear waste storage facility without proper permits. Vermont and New York officials have been much more proactive in using their state authority to protect the public and the environment from Entergy’s nuclear reactors in those states.
Politicians at the state and federal level are discussing new nuclear waste laws. In the U.S. Congress today, Sen. Ron Wyden said he expects a draft nuclear waste bill shortly. Sen. Wyden said, “I call the nuclear waste issue one of those issues that feels like the longest running battle since the Trojan War, and I think it’s time to get on with it.” Massachusetts state legislators have also announced legislation to deal with Pilgrim. Let’s hope these legislators can “get on with it.”
Meanwhile, back in Manomet, Entergy is refueling Pilgrim in March or April. This means Entergy is going to bring in more uranium based nuclear fuel rods so that Pilgrim can keep on running — and making even more nuclear waste to sit in those dangerous spent fuel pools that were the focus of the Attorney General’s lawsuit.
Since the NRC’s laws are stacked against them, local residents are telling state and local officials that enough is enough when it comes to the pollution and dangers from Pilgrim.
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