Anti-nuclear groups shower federal regulators with legal challenges

More than two dozen groups will file challenges with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Thursday calling for a moratorium on reactor licensing until the agency addresses a series of safety concerns laid out by a federal task force last month.

In total, the groups — which include nuclear critics like Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy — will file 19 separate challenges with the NRC.

The filings, which could foreshadow lawsuits, signal an escalating effort by the groups to use the March disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant to slow U.S. nuclear development.

The challenges, known as “contentions,” urge the commission to conduct additional environmental reviews of pending applications based on the federal task force’s findings before deciding to license or relicense a reactor.

“What we’ve learned in the wake of Japan’s nuclear disaster — and what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s experts concluded — is that current regulations are fundamentally inadequate,” said Phillip Musegaas, an official with Riverkeeper Inc., which will file one of the challenges Thursday.

“The law requires regulators to take this information into account before issuing any licenses for reactors. Our filing today is intended to force them to do so.”

Last month, a task force made up of senior NRC staff called on the commission to make wide-ranging improvements to the NRC’s “existing patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives.” But the task force, which was set up by President Obama in the aftermath of Japan’s nuclear disaster, stressed that current NRC regulations pose no “imminent threat” to safety.

The task force’s findings have set off a debate in Washington over nuclear safety, with some liberal Democrats calling for speedy regulatory changes and Republicans cautioning against imposing potentially costly new rules without further review.

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NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko has called on his fellow commissioners to make decisions on the task force’s 12 recommendations within 90 days and implement any necessary changes within five years. While the NRC commissioners agree they must move quickly to evaluate the task force’s report, some have said they don’t believe it can be completed in three months.

The groups, in their contentions, argue that the National Environmental Policy Act requires that NRC issue a supplemental environmental impact statement based on the new information in the task force’s report.

Mindy Goldstein, acting director at the Turner Environmental Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law, said the groups could take legal action in federal courts if NRC rejects their contentions.

“This could eventually end up in court. This information is important and it needs to be considered now,” said Goldstein, who worked with various groups on the contentions.

The contentions target all of the licensing and relicensing proceedings currently before the NRC. These include a slew of the country’s nuclear power plants, including Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, Diablo Canyon in California and Indian Point in New York.

—This story was updated at 8:18 a.m.