The Prairie Island tribe applauded a finding that the NRC should reconsider effects of long-term, on-site storage at reactor sites.
In a victory for a Minnesota Indian tribe, a federal appeals court on Friday threw out a rule that allows nuclear power plants to store radioactive waste at reactor sites for up to 60 years after a plant shuts down.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously ruled that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not fully evaluate risks associated with long-term storage of nuclear waste. The court said on-site storage has been "optimistically labeled" as temporary but stretched on for decades.
The appeals court, ruling in a case brought by four Northeastern states, the tribe and other groups, said the NRC should complete a detailed environmental review of on-site storage or explain why one is not needed.
"We have been fighting this issue for the last 20 years. It is kind of nice to get something in our favor," said Johnny Johnson, president of the Prairie Island Indian Community, whose 250 members live next to Xcel Energy's Prairie Island nuclear power plant at Red Wing, Minn.
The court stopped short of requiring separate environmental studies at each reactor site, a request the tribe made. Phil Mahowald, the tribe's general counsel, said it will continue to push for a site-specific environmental review as the NRC reconsiders the storage rule. The Prairie Island plant stores highly radioactive spent fuel rods in an indoor pool and in 29 sealed, dry casks outdoors.
"The storage facility is on the tribe's ancestral homeland," Mahowald said. "It is literally 600 yards away from the nearest resident. If there was a catastrophic event there, it would basically render the tribe homeless.''
The ruling added a new wrinkle to a dispute that has confounded federal officials for more than 30 years: What to do with the radioactive waste -- mainly spent fuel rods -- produced by nuclear power plants?
Congress designated Nevada's Yucca Mountain for a nuclear waste dump, but the plan has been opposed by Nevada elected officials, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. The Obama administration cut off funding for the Yucca project but has not identified an alternative site for long-term storage of nuclear waste.
In the meantime, waste is stored on site at the nation's 104 nuclear reactors in pools or in dry casks. Minnesota's other nuclear power plant, Xcel's Monticello reactor, also has an indoor pool and outdoor casks for waste. Both plants are expected to operate until the early 2030s.
Laura McCarten, Xcel regional vice president, said the ruling did not appear to have any immediate implications for operations at the two nuclear plants, but it "is one more indication that the federal government needs to act quickly to meet its obligation to remove used fuel from our nuclear plant sites in Minnesota."
The search for a solution took on a new urgency after the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station in Japan. Three-quarters of the 72,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel scattered across 35 U.S. states is packed into spent fuel pools similar to the ones thought to have overheated and released radioactive material into the air and water around the stricken Japanese reactors.
A presidential commission recommended in January that the U.S. immediately start looking for an alternative to the failed Yucca Mountain site, which cost an estimated $15 billion but was never completed. The panel recommended a "consent-based" approach to siting future nuclear waste facilities, noting that attempts to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities have failed spectacularly.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called Friday's ruling a landmark victory for New Yorkers and people across the country who live near nuclear power plants. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont sued the NRC last year, claiming that the agency had not shown that on-site storage was safe. The Minnesota tribe and environmental groups also joined the case.
"The NRC cannot turn its back on federal law and ignore its obligation to thoroughly review the environmental, public health and safety risks related to the creation of long-term nuclear waste storage sites within our communities," Schneiderman said.
Schneiderman, who opposes the Indian Point nuclear plant near New York City, said the ruling means the NRC cannot license or relicense any nuclear plant, including Indian Point, until it reviews the risks of on-site storage.
An NRC spokesman said the agency was reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment.
The Associated Press and staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.
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