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Groups Step up Call for NRC Delay

Environmental groups launched a volley of legal challenges to stall action to extend the operation of aging reactors and delay construction of more advanced designs.

HOUSTON/NEW YORK | (Reuters) - About two dozen environmental groups launched a volley of legal challenges at nuclear regulators on Thursday in an attempt to stall action to extend the operation of aging reactors and delay construction of more advanced nuclear designs.

Using findings of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's own Fukushima task force as ammunition, the groups, representing anti-nuclear parties from coast to coast, filed petitions with the NRC claiming that existing federal law requires the agency to address safety concerns in the Fukushima review before moving forward.

"The NRC may not issue or renew a single reactor license until it has either strengthened regulations to protect the public from severe accident risks or until it has made a careful and detailed study of the environmental implications of not doing so," the groups said in a statement, citing provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Atomic Energy Act.

A spokesman for the NRC, Scott Burnell, said, "We'll review the filings. There is a well established process within the NRC for individuals or groups to raise legal challenges to NRC licensing activities.

"What we've learned in the wake of Japan's nuclear disaster -- and what the NRC's experts concluded -- is that current regulations are fundamentally inadequate," said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson Program Director of Riverkeeper Inc.

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

Burnell noted, "There is already a petition in front of the commission that asked the agency to suspend all new reactor and license renewal activity. So this is not the first time that people have suggested the events at Fukushima should in their view cause the agency to stop doing everything."

More Contentions Coming

Riverkeeper which today filed a contention document related to Entergy Corp's Indian Point nuclear reactor in New York.

Other nuclear plants that were the target of 19 separate challenges filed at the NRC are owned by Southern Co, SCANA Corp, PG&E Corp, NRG Energy, Energy Future Holdings, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, Progress Energy, NextEra Energy, the Tennessee Valley Authority and others.

So far, the nuclear meltdown and the release of radioactivity in Japan has not altered the NRC's timeline to relicense older nuclear plants or to evaluate new reactor designs needed.

Since the March 11 earthquake, the NRC has relicensed nine older reactors, extending the operation of each by 20 years.

This week, the NRC moved forward to allow the first new advanced nuclear power plant projects in the nation to move a step closer to reality.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC said it launched a comprehensive review of agency regulations and practices. Any changes deemed necessary to improve safety will be applied to all nuclear reactors, new or old, the agency has said.

The task force recommended an overhaul of the way the NRC requires the nation's 104 reactors to prepare for disasters like earthquakes and floods, but NRC commissioners have disagreed on how quickly the agency should move ahead on the recommendations.

"The task force report states in no uncertain terms that current reactors are safe and appropriate to continue operating," Burnell noted.

On Wednesday, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko chided current commissioners for their "reoccupation with process at the expense of nuclear safety policy."

Reporting by Eileen O'Grady and Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alden Bentley