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New York v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

By Hillary H. Harnett

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (“NRC” or “the Commission”) licenses and regulates the nation’s commercial nuclear power plants. Over a span of several decades, it has grappled with its environmental obligations and faced recurrent litigation regarding its responsibilities under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). In 2012, the D.C. Circuit heard another NEPA challenge, New York v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, just after a series of political events left the future of nuclear waste disposal less certain than ever before. In its decision, the court vacated a recent NRC rulemaking, holding that the Commission had violated NEPA through its failure to adequately assess the environmental impacts of long-term nuclear waste storage. This decision will lead to the NRC’s first Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the effects of continued nuclear power generation in the event that the nation fails to eventually establish a permanent geologic repository for nuclear waste.

This Comment argues that the decision was an appropriate NEPA holding and a welcome departure from earlier decisions that displayed more extreme deference to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission despite similarly lackluster environmental analyses. The decision also highlights a larger issue: the active role that the judiciary must take in response to legislative inaction in the environmental arena.

Cite as: Hillary H. Harnett, New York v. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 589 (2013).

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