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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 to 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, made filings 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.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said the agency will review the filings. "There is a well established process within the NRC for individuals or groups to raise legal challenges to NRC licensing activities," Burnell said.
The latest filings echo arguments already raised by some of the regional environmental groups in the wake of the meltdown and release of radioactivity following the earthquake and tsunami that shattered Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March.
The NRC commission has yet to respond to that petition asking the agency to suspend all new reactor and license renewal activity, Burnell said, and there is no timetable for commission action.
"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," Burnell said.
To bolster their effort, the group's latest strategy is to rely on findings released last month by the NRC's Fukushima task force, said Jim Warren of NC Warn, a North Carolina group challenging new reactors proposed by Duke Energy and Progress Energy.
"The NRC's own 'A-Team' of experts warns that severe accidents must be considered in the U.S.," Warren said. "Federal law does not allow the NRC commissioners to ignore those warnings in order to accommodate the nuclear industry."
Burnell countered that the task force report "states in no uncertain terms that current reactors are safe and appropriate to continue operating."
The report recommended an overhaul of the way regulators require 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.
On Wednesday, NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko chided current commissioners for their "reoccupation with process at the expense of nuclear safety policy."
"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, which filed a challenge related to Entergy Corp's Indian Point nuclear reactor in New York.
So far, the Fukushima disaster has not altered the NRC's timeline to relicense older nuclear plants or to evaluate new reactor designs.
Since the March 11 earthquake, the NRC has relicensed nine older reactors, extending the operation of each by 20 years, and this week moved forward to certify the Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear design which developers plan to use to build the nation's first new reactors in 30 years.
Any Fukushima-related changes deemed necessary to improve safety will be applied to all nuclear reactors, new or old, the NRC has said repeatedly.
Thursday's filings seek to force the NRC to address safety concerns raised by Fukushima before deciding on all active requests for reactor relicensing, such as Indian Point and First Energy's Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio, as well as the NRC's AP1000 design certification process and applications for new reactor licenses, such as Southern Co's Vogtle nuclear expansion in Georgia and SCANA Corp's Summer plant expansion in South Carolina.
Other nuclear plants that were the target of the 19 filings are operated by Constellation Energy Group, Dominion Resources, DTE Energy, PG&E Corp, NRG Energy, Energy Future Holdings, Duke Energy, PPL Corp, Progress Energy, NextEra Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Reporting by Eileen O'Grady and Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alden Bentley and Sofina Mirza-Reid