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Charge One: The Nuclear Waste Confidence Game

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is charged with perpetrating a con game on the American public by refusing to find answers -- or at least admit there are none -- for the nuclear waste problem while continuing to license reactors that will produce more of it.

The Problem: Since the first cupful of commercial radioactive waste was generated at Shippingport, PA in 1957, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has skillfully avoided addressing the problem of how to manage and store the resulting, and ever-mounting quantities of high-level radioactive waste (HLRW). There are at least 70,000 metric tons of HLRW that have accumulated — and continue to do so — at US commercial nuclear power reactor sites. There is no solution — and may never be — to the long-term safe management of these forever deadly wastes. Yet, the NRC has permitted this unlimited generation of HLRW by hiding behind a 1984 rule of its own making— the “Nuclear Waste Confidence Decision.” 

This so-called “confidence” was in reality an excuse to do nothing. Simply stated, the NRC had “confidence” that one or more deep geologic repositories for permanent disposal of HLRW would open by 2007-2009, and that in the meantime, “interim” on-site storage at reactors would be safe. Today, that “confidence” has been amended to the opening of a repository “when needed,” and a continued adherence to the myth that current on-site HLRW storage is “safe.”

The Charge: This decades-long abdication of responsibility for some of the most lethal and hazardous materials ever created by humans, has endangered lives, livelihoods and the environment without accountability. The NRC is charged with perpetrating a lethal confidence game on an unsuspecting public and on a delinquent Congress that has never required the agency to consider the management of HLRW as an integral and essential component to the licensing or continued operation of nuclear power reactors.

Next Steps: In 2012, a coalition of states and environmental groups won a major legal victory. The court found that the NRC had violated the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency has been ordered to carry out a long overdue Environmental Impact Statement to examine the risks of prolonged HLRW generation and storage. But the NRC is rushing through this process in 24 months, a decision also being challenged along with a call to cease all generation of radioactive waste until the waste problem is satisfactorily addressed. Hearings on the EIS are upcoming around the country. We encourage the public to participate.

Background: For details that support this charge and for the history of – and the political, technological and legal developments in – the radioactive waste story, please see the June 2013 Beyond Nuclear backgrounder, The NRC’s Nuclear Waste Confidence Game, prepared by Kevin Kamps.