Critics of the nuclear energy industry praised the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for its recent decision to put on hold the final approval of construction and operating licenses for all not-yet-approved nuclear reactors, as well as license renewals, until it can review the environmental impacts of storing nuclear waste.

But industry observers note that the NRC’s decision, spelled out in an Aug. 7 order, may not be the death knell some are making it out to be.

Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, says that it’s “too soon to tell” what the true impact will be. “It’s going to depend entirely on the pace at which NRC addresses [the waste-storage] issues,” he says.

The NRC acted in response to a June 8 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacating the agency’s 2010 Waste Confidence and Temporary Storage rules until an adequate study could be completed on the long-term environmental risks of the agency’s plans for storing spent nuclear fuel.

"Waste confidence" refers to an NRC finding that spent fuel can be stored safely in dry casks or fuel pools and that a final repository eventually will be established.

A group of 24 environmental and other organizations filed a petition on June 18 urging the NRC to respond to the court’s ruling.

Lou Zeller, executive director of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, one of the petitioners in the court case, says, “It appears that the commissioners have, at least initially, grasped the magnitude of the court’s ruling, and we are optimistic that it will set up a fundamentally transparent, fair process under the National Environmental Policy Act to examine the serious environmental impacts of spent nuclear-fuel storage and disposal prior to licensing or relicensing nuclear reactors.”

The NRC said in the order: “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.

“In recognition of our duties under the law, we will not issue licenses dependent on the waste-confidence decision or the temporary-storage rule until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed,” the NRC continued. But the freeze only applies to final decisions. “All licensing reviews and proceedings should continue to move forward,” the agency said.

The NRC’s decision freezes final licensing decisions on 19 projects: nine construction and operating licenses for new reactors, eight license renewals, one operating license and one early site permit. It does not affect work already under way at two new reactors at the Vogtle plant in Georgia and two at the V.C. Summer plants in South Carolina, all four of which have received final combined licenses from the commission.

Steve Rus, executive director of Overland Park, Kans.-based Black & Veatch, notes that the impact likely will be limited if the NRC acts quickly to perform the environmental analysis needed to appease the court. Currently, most final licensing decisions on a handful of reactors are a year off. "[But] if a year from now, this issue is still out there, there could be delays in licensing,” he says.

The NRC seems to be moving forward with standard proceedings leading up to final licensing, Rus adds. For example, for an undisclosed project, Black & Veatch will be participating in mid-August in an Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards meeting, one in a series of meetings that is part of the process of receiving the final green light to go ahead with the project.