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State of New York v. United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission

December 21, 2009

THE STATE OF NEW YORK; RICHARD BLUMENTHAL, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF CONNECTICUT; AND THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, PETITIONERS,
v.
UNITED STATES NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION; AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RESPONDENTS, AND ENTERGY NUCLEAR OPERATIONS INC., ET AL., INTERVENOR-RESPONDENTS.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Petition for review of a decision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission denying rulemaking petitions filed by Massachusetts and California. As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given due consideration to the relevant studies concerning the rulemaking petitions, we must defer to its expertise in determining the proper risk level associated with the storage of nuclear material in spent fuel pools, and therefore deny the petition to review the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's decision.

Per curiam.

Argued: October 23, 2009

Before: JACOBS, Chief Judge, KEARSE, Circuit*fn1 Judge, and GARDEPHE, District Judge.

The States of New York and Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (collectively the "States") petition for review of a decision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ("NRC") denying rulemaking petitions filed by Massachusetts and California. As the NRC has given due consideration to the relevant studies, we must defer to their expertise in determining the proper risk level associated with the storage of nuclear material in spent fuel pools, and therefore deny the petition for review.

I.

Two States filed rulemaking petitions (Massachusetts in 2006, and California in 2007) asking the NRC to reverse its 1996 Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which found (among other things) that spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants do not create a significant environmental impact within the meaning of the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq. The NRC consolidated and denied the rulemaking petitions in a 2008 decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 2239(a)(1)(A). United States Courts of Appeal have jurisdiction to review such final orders of the NRC. 28 U.S.C. § 2342(4). The States petitioning for review here (New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts) claim standing on the ground that nuclear power plants are within or near their borders and that an accident at one of these plants could harm their citizens.

Under the National Environmental Policy Act ("NEPA"), each federal agency must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement ("EIS") before taking a major action that significantly affects the quality of the "human environment." 42 U.S.C. § 4332(2)(C). The renewal of a license for a nuclear power plant is a major action requiring an EIS under NRC regulations. See 10 C.F.R. § 51.20.

The EIS required for license issuance and renewal at nuclear power plants covers both generic and plant-specific environmental impacts. The NRC has decided that these two kinds of impacts are to be treated separately. Category I impacts are those that: 1) are common to all nuclear power plants; 2) can be assigned a uniform significance level of small, moderate, or large (even if the impact is not precisely the same at each plant); and 3) do not require plant-specific kinds of mitigation. Category II impacts require site-by-site evaluation. Since Category I impacts are common to each license renewal, the NRC has produced a Generic Environmental Impact Statement ("GEIS") that applies to these common issues. Massachusetts v. United States, 522 F.3d 115, 120 (1st Cir. 2008). The GEIS, combined with a site-specific EIS, constitutes the complete EIS required by NEPA for the major federal action of a plant's license renewal. Id. (noting also that the GEIS was codified as a final rule in Environmental Review for Renewal of Nuclear Power Plant Operating Licenses, 61 Fed. Reg. 28,467 (June 5, 1996)).

The NRC classifies on-site storage of spent fuel in pools as a Category I issue that causes a small environmental impact. Massachusetts and California contended that the information in their rulemaking petitions showed a greater risk of fire from this source than previously appreciated, and that therefore the environmental impact should no longer be discounted as small; they further contended that the risk should be evaluated plant-by-plant (rather than be considered within Category I). New York and Connecticut supported these original petitions. The NRC considered both petitions together, and concluded that its initial determination was correct. After these petitions were denied in August 2008, this petition for review followed.

II.

An agency decision to deny a rulemaking petition is subject to judicial review; but that review is "extremely limited and highly deferential." Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 527-28 (2007) (internal quotation marks omitted). It "is to be overturned if it is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law"; but this standard is applied "at the high end of the range of deference and an agency refusal is overturned only in the rarest and most compelling of circumstances." EMR Network v. FCC, 391 F.3d 269, 272-273 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Such compelling circumstances would typically involve "plain errors of law" relating to the agency's delegated authority. Am. Horse Prot. Ass'n v. Lyng, 812 F.2d 1, 5 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

This standard has been said to be so high as to be "akin to non-reviewability." Cellnet Comm'n, Inc. v. FCC, 965 F.2d 1106, 1111 (D.C. Cir. 1992). To deny review of a rulemaking petition, a court typically need do no more than assure itself that an agency's decision was "reasoned," meaning that it ...


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