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The full five-member commission ordered Wednesday that Carolina Power & Light Co. could not begin storing nuclear waste at its Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant until the commission's staff answers a list of undisclosed questions.

The ruling temporarily suspends a decision made Dec. 21 by the NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation that gave CP&L the green light to begin expanding existing nuclear waste cooling pools.

Jim Warren, director of N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, said CP&L could continue to work on making the pools operational, but that they would be doing so at the expense of ratepayers.

"There is no certainty at all they will get final approval for this," Warren said.

But CP&L spokesman Mike Hughes said the company had no plans to start storing waste in the newly expanded pool until the middle of the year, when he expects that a final decision will be made by the full NRC.

"We are optimistic it will wrap up in a few weeks or a few months," he said.

The commission's order also blocked an appeal by Orange County against the December ruling. The county is waiting for a formal ruling from the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, a division of the NRC, on whether an environmental impact statement should be considered before expansion is allowed.

"We are pleased that the (NRC) stopped CP&L from putting waste in the pools, but it's only half a loaf," said Diane Curran, an attorney representing Orange County, in a news release.

"We still believe it was illegal for the NRC staff to issue the license amendment before a hearing is completed -- and we are in a very strong legal position."

But Hughes said the ruling should not cause any concerns for the company.

"At this time, we don't think this will cause any additional tremendous problems that a two-year process hasn't already caused," Hughes said. "We are confident and optimistic that the ASLB and the full NRC will confirm what we know is a safe process."

CP&L requested permission two years ago to open two existing nuclear waste storage pools at the plant located in Wake County. But the proposal sparked protests and legal action from Orange County and N.C. WARN, an environmental group.

The opening of the pools would make Shearon Harris the largest nuclear waste storage facility in the country. An accident at the plant could potentially affect a 50-mile radius, which stretches into Orange County.

But Hughes said the plant had been operating under the same process for 12 years with no problems.

Warren said he thinks the NRC was forced to make a tough decision, but that they will ultimately rule in favor of the county.

"The NRC is in a corner," Warren said. "The commission knows Orange County has a strong legal case and is likely to win if it goes to court. But on the other hand, they don't want to tell CP&L 'no.'

"If the system works at all, Orange County will get the environmental impact statement considered."

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