The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has directed its staff not to issue licences for any US reactors until a court decision on waste confidence is addressed. Only final licensing has been put on hold; licensing reviews should ‘continue to move forward,’ NRC said.

The move follows the finding of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in June that the NRC had violated federal environmental law (the National Environmental Policy Act) in issuing its 2010 update to the waste confidence decision and accompanying temporary storage rule. ‘Waste confidence’ is a generic finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored at reactor sites for decades in either spent fuel pools or dry casks, and that a repository will be available for final disposal of the spent fuel.

However, the court found that the updated rule could not reasonably assure that a final waste repository would be ready for disposal of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel “when necessary.” It also said that the NRC had “failed to properly examine future dangers and key consequences” of storing used commercial nuclear fuel at power reactor sites for up to 60 years.

A petition filed with the NRC in mid-June, by 24 groups urged the NRC to respond to the court ruling by freezing final licensing decision until it has completed a rulemaking action on the environmental impacts of spent fuel storage and disposal.

NRC said in a 7 August memorandum and order that: “Waste confidence undergirds certain agency licensing decisions, in particular new reactor licensing and reactor licence renewal.”

“Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are 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. A course of action has not yet been determined,” it said.

The order affects licensing reviews for as many as 21 new reactors and 12 license renewals for existing reactors, according to the NRC.

The Nuclear Energy Institute commented that the impact “is far more limited” than nuclear energy opponents have suggested. It said that pending applications for potential new nuclear facilities are for projects where construction is unlikely to begin before the end of the decade, and noted that the Vogtle (Georgia) and V.C. Summer (South Carolina) projects will not be affected.

The NEI said in a statement that 73 of the USA’s 104 reactors already have received licence extensions over the past decade, and a further 13 reactor applications are pending before the NRC. “That leaves 18 reactors for which licence renewal applications have yet to be filed, and only about a half-dozen of those are expected to have entered the NRC’s multi-year licence renewal process by mid-2013,” it said.