Connecticut, New York, and Vermont are suing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), challenging a recently effected rule that makes it legal to store used nuclear fuel on-site for up to 60 years after a plant shutdown.

The states’ attorneys general on Tuesday asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review the federal agency’s “Consideration of Environmental Impacts of Temporary Storage of Spent Fuel after Cessation of Reactor Operation” rule and the affiliated “Waste Confidence Decision Update.” The rules were both issued on Dec. 23 and became effective in late January.

Prior to the change, spent fuel could be stored on-site for up to 30 years after a reactor closed.

The “NRC acted arbitrarily, abused its discretion, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Atomic Energy Act, the Commission’s policies and regulations, the Council on Environmental Quality’s regulations, and other applicable laws and regulations in promulgating these rules and findings,” claimed the states in their petition.

The suit asks the court to vacate the new rules and send the matter back to the NRC for a site-specific analysis of potential environmental impacts associated with on-site storage of spent nuclear fuel. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen said the NRC was required to perform environmental impact studies before extending the temporary storage rule “because any leaks from spent fuel storage pools or dry storage facilities could have significant impacts on groundwater and land use.”

“We are asking the NRC to obey the law,” Jepsen said. “The NRC has a mandatory legal duty to provide state and local governments and the public with a full and comprehensive analysis of the potential environmental impact of additional decades of storage of high-level nuclear waste.”

 “The public has a right to know how long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel will affect the environment, particularly when it is occurring at nuclear power plants that were never designed to be long-term storage facilities of spent nuclear fuel,” said Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell. “Calling this a ‘temporary’ storage rule does not reflect reality when the rule allows spent nuclear fuel to be stored within Vermont’s borders for several generations to come,” he added.

Sorrell said that among issues addressed by the lawsuit are the NRC’s claims that there would be “no significant impact” on the environment. “The NRC rules assert that the environmental analysis is unnecessary because the NRC is confident that spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely at Vermont Yankee until 2072 (60 years from the end of the current license), or, if the plant is relicensed, until 2092. The lawsuit challenges the enactment of these rules.”

Connecticut has two operating nuclear plants, Millstone 2 and Millstone 3 in Waterford, and two decommissioned nuclear plants, Millstone 1 in Waterford and Connecticut Yankee in Haddam. The spent fuel from those plants remains on-site awaiting a permanent storage facility, Jepsen said.

Six reactors are in operation in New York State at the Ginna, Indian Point, FitzPatrick, and Nine Mile Point plants.

The Vermont Yankee plant is Vermont’s sole operating nuclear unit. Both the Indian Point reactor in New York and the Vermont Yankee reactor have had leaks of small amounts of nuclear material into the groundwater.

In related news, Entergy Corp., the owner of Vermont Yankee, last week indicated it could challenge the state’s decision not to allow relicensing for the plant. The reactor’s license expires next March. Entergy CEO Wayne Leonard told investors in a conference call that the company’s future should be decided by the NRC, a federal agency. The NRC is currently considering a license application to allow the reactor to operate for another 20 years.

The lawsuit filed on Tuesday against the NRC follows a December federal court decision that dismissed a suit filed by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) against the U.S. Department of Energy over its October 2009 rejection of a request from NARUC to suspend payments into the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF). Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Steve Kerekes said on Tuesday that the group was still considering whether to appeal.

Congress established the NWF in 1982 to pay for the transportation and permanent disposal of commercial nuclear waste. The fees (one-tenth of a cent for every kWh of nuclear-generated power sold) are assessed to nuclear utility companies and passed through to ratepayers by NARUC’s Public Service Commission members. NARUC claimed the fees were based upon the federal government’s “explicit promise that the waste would be moved and safely disposed by the DOE, most likely at the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.”

Yucca Mountain is now dead. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Friday told members of the Blue Ribbon Commission—a panel he charged to come up with a plan, by July this year, for disposing of the nation’s nuclear waste—to move past the nuclear repository. In a letter, he said, “It is time for the commission, the Congress, and the American people to move toward a better, more widely-supported solution.”

Sources: POWERnews, Office of the Attorneys General for Connecticut, Vermont, and New York, Vermont Public Radio, Reuters