Halt to nuclear licenses certain to be short-lived

At first glance, it looks like a significant victory for the anti-nuclear movement.

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted unanimously to put a hold on licenses for new nuclear plants and on license renewals for existing facilities until the issue of radioactive waste storage is resolved.

Opponents of nuclear power have long attempted to paint the industry into a corner with a two-pronged argument -- no nukes until the waste issue is resolved, and by the way, no alternative for waste disposal is safe enough.

No doubt, those pursuing that strategy were encouraged by the NRC's announcement on Aug. 7, but any celebration would be premature.

For starters, the moratorium is limited to issuing new licenses and license renewals. Work on the licensing process continues -- clearly with the expectation the ban will be lifted.

The commission's decision is in response to a federal appeals court ruling in June, which found the NRC failed to adequately address the environmental concerns associated with temporary waste storage.

The commission is now "considering all available options for resolving the waste-confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both," according to a statement released by the agency.

In other words, the NRC plans to tackle the court's concerns and get licensing back on track. Safe alternatives for temporary storage exist. Chief among them are dry casks kept at reactor sites.

The court faulted NRC for assuming a permanent, deep geological repository for nuclear wastes will be opened within the next 60 years.

It's a fair criticism, but whether or not another kilowatt of nuclear power is ever produced, it's necessary to safely store the existing stockpile of spent nuclear fuel, regardless of how long it takes to open a national repository.

Our energy future can't be held hostage to the political whims that control national waste policy.

Dry cask technology has amassed a 20-year operating history, virtually without a hitch. Proving the safety of something that has an unblemished track record spanning decades is well within NRC's reach.

Frankly, the environmental community ought to be rooting loudest for a quick resolution.

If the NRC doesn't issue new licenses, the options for replacing the lost power would have to include fossil fuel plants, all of which release greenhouse gasses. Given the mounting concerns over global warming, that's cause for real concern.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant north of New York City, which is closest to receiving a license renewal, is most immediately threatened by NRC's moratorium, according to Environment and Energy Daily.

The licenses for Indian Point's two reactors in Buchanan, N.Y., are set to expire in 2013 and 2015. The reactors are essential to keeping New York City functioning, providing about 25 to 30 percent of the energy supply.

Solar panels and windmills can't make up for the deficit if the facility is allowed to shut down. And that's just the most immediate example. Other license renewals are on the line if the issue isn't resolved.

A closer look at interim storage for nuclear wastes isn't a bad idea. If it doesn't lead to improved safety, it will at least provide some additional assurances to folks living nearby.

But the most responsible course includes keeping existing plants on line and ensuring new reactors are part of the mix for future energy generation.