LIMERICK — One unanticipated effect of the federal government shutdown may be a delay in the relicensing of the Limerick nuclear plant.
The long and winding road that leads to a delay, if there is one, is much like a trail of falling dominoes and depends almost entirely on how long the government is shut down.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency has enough “carry-over” funding to get through the next week, but after that, if the shutdown continues, all NRC personnel except the resident inspectors at the nation’s nuclear plants will be furloughed, probably by Oct. 9.
As a result, the NRC has postponed two public meetings in California that have ramifications back in Limerick.
The hearings are to gather public input on the NRC’s proposed new guidelines for dealing with spent nuclear fuel storage, known in NRC parlance as the “waste confidence rule.”
The new rules are the result of a federal court’s decision in June, 2012 that ruled the NRC had to re-examine the manner in which it regulates the impact of spent fuel storage, particularly as it relates licensing new nuclear plants and extending the licenses of existing plants.
In September 2012, the NRC announced it would delay any decisions on re-licensing power plants until it had created a new set of rules for how spent fuel waste would be factored into the decision.
The NRC has promulgated a draft of those new rules and part of the process of putting them into place involves public hearings, like those canceled in California, to gather public input.
That process of putting the new rules in place was projected to be completed by next August, but it cannot be completed until the NRC holds its 12 public input sessions planned for around the country, Sheehan said.
So far, the NRC has held two of the hearings, one at their headquarters in Rockville, Md. and the other in Denver.
“So far, there are a lot of people and organizations which want to have some input into the final form of that 585-page document,” Sheehan said of the new spent fuel waste rules.
“Unfortunately, the lack of appropriations gives us no choice but to postpone these two meetings,” NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said in a prepared NRC press release. “Once we resume full operations, we will reschedule the meetings.”
However, “if there is a significant delay in holding the hears due to the shut down,” that could have a ripple effect through the process and also further delay a decision on the re-licensing of Exelon Nuclear’s Limerick Generating Station, Sheehan confirmed.
In 2011, Exelon applied for a license to operate both reactors at the plan for another 20 years.
Currently, the operating licenses on the Limerick plant’s two nuclear reactors expire on Oct. 26, 2024, for Unit 1, and on June 22, 2029, for Unit 2.
At the foundation of NRC’s new rules is the assumption that spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely on site because NRC predicts that a national depository for the substance will be established within 160 years. The previously planned repository, at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, is currently moth-balled while the federal government studies alternatives.
Spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for hundreds if not thousands of years.
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