High level radioactive waste is perhaps the deadliest stuff on earth, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)–the group charged with protecting public safety when it comes to producing, handling and storing the stuff–can’t seem to make up its mind about CP&L’s plan to become the nation’s largest repository for highly radioactive spent fuel rods.

Two years ago, CP&L asked the NRC for permission to place two previously unused waste storage pools on line at its Shearon Harris nuclear power plant in southern Wake County. Last Dec. 21, the NRC approved the CP&L plan to more than double its high-level nuclear waste storage capacity. The NRC decision shocked opponents of the plan because it was announced prior to the completion of a safety study by the NRC’s own Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.

Last week–after having its judgment questioned by two members of Congress–the five-member NRC reversed itself and suspended the December ruling until those safety questions are answered.

Activists at the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network (NC WARN)–the group that has spearheaded the campaign against the CP&L plan–were once again taken by surprise.

In his Feb. 15 e-mail announcement of the NRC decision, NC WARN director Jim Warren wrote: “Here is the latest news regarding the strange doings of the NRC. We are still trying to figure out if this is good news or not.”

Of course, any delay of the plan represents, at least, a small victory for opponents, Warren said. However, the NRC order also formally denied Orange County’s appeal of the December approval, saying its regulations do not permit such appeals. Then the NRC used its discretionary authority to tell CP&L it cannot load waste into the pools until the NRC staff satisfies a list of questions about its review.

In their order, the commissioners asked some hard questions such as why the NRC’s own Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation concluded that CP&L’s plan would pose “no significant hazards” and why a seven-step accident scenario laid out by a consultant hired by Orange County was dismissed. The NRC also ordered the NRC staff to substantiate its support for the waste expansion.

The hard questions were asked, but the NRC also threw a big bone to CP&L, allowing the utility to continue its work to prepare the two storage pools for eventual use. A spokesman for CP&L said last week’s NRC ruling was not a setback.

On Monday, Warren said the NRC “is in a jam” because it is feeling enormous pressure from both sides. Orange County officials want NRC’s closed-door process brought out in the open, and CP&L wants the plan approved without further delay.

“They [the NRC] are not used to denying the industry what it wants,” Warren said. “It’s a mixed bag. We still want a full, open public hearing on CP&L’s plan, but I think it’s a good boost for our side.”

For opponents, increasing the storage capacity increases the risk of a major nuclear accident, a risk CP&L calls remote. Not so, says Warren: “The NRC now estimates a 1-in-100 chance for a waste-pool accident in the U.S.–not including the most troubling risk factors represented by terrorism and sabotage.”

The 1-in-100 scenario “belies the industry’s long-standing claim that the potential for an accident is remote,” Warren said.

Because spent nuclear fuel rods are so highly radioactive, they must be cooled for five years by water that remains in continuous motion. A loss of cooling water could result in a major nuclear accident. Warren said he recently learned that plants in Alabama and Iowa lost waste pool cooling last year for two days, during which time temperatures rose to levels where damage to safety equipment begins to occur.

Congressman David Price and U.S. Senator John Edwards joined Orange County in protesting the NRC’s ruling in its December decision. “Orange County has a strong legal position,” Warren said, “and the NRC knows it.”