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September 30, 2013
NRC reaffirms nuclear 'waste confidence'

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has issued two documents to support its belief that spent nuclear fuel can be stored on-site at reactors beyond the licensed life for operating those reactors.  In a proposed waste-confidence rule, the NRC states that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored for 60 years following expiration of a reactor’s operating license. 

The 60 years reflects the time frame within which the NRC says a geologic repository can be made ready for permanent disposal of spent nuclear fuel.  The second document is NRC’s draft generic environmental impact statement (DGEIS), which supports the proposed waste-confidence rule.

Permanent repository by 2009

Development of the waste-confidence rule goes back to the late 1970s, when environmental groups challenged the NRC regarding issues related to the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel beyond a reactor’s licensed life for operation.  In 1984, the NRC published the original waste-confidence rule.  In that action, the NRC found “reasonable assurance” that a geologic repository for the safe disposal of spent nuclear waste would be available by 2007 to 2009. 

The NRC also expressed its reasonable assurance that spent fuel could be stored for 30 years at reactors with expired licenses with no significant environmental impact.  Those assurances were repeated by the NRC in subsequent waste-confidence reviews in 1990 and 2010.

D.C. Circuit ruling

However, in June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that NRC’s 2010 waste-confidence review and decision were deficient in three areas.  First, the court held that NRC’s decision lacked an evaluation of the environmental effects of failing to secure permanent geologic disposal.  Second, the court said the NRC had not adequately examined the risk of spent fuel pool leaks in a forward-looking fashion.  Third, the court said the NRC had not adequately examined the consequences of potential spent fuel pool fires.

Permanent repository by 2048

In the current proposal, the NRC states that there is no technical reason storage of spent fuel in either spent fuel pools or dry casks cannot continue for 60 years after the end of the reactor’s licensed life for operation.  According to the NRC, this is a “likely time frame” in part because the Department of Energy has expressed its intention to provide repository capacity by 2048 for all currently operating plants. 

The NRC emphasizes that completion of a geologic repository is required by federal law.  Despite the apparent failure of the Yucca Mountain project to fulfill that obligation, the NRC notes that geologic disposal of spent nuclear waste remains an active area of study in 24 other nations as well as the United States and continues to be the “favored disposition path both nationally and internationally.”

Aging management

The DGEIS is intended to examine the potential environmental impacts that could occur as a result of the continued storage of spent nuclear fuel at at-reactor and away-from-reactor sites until the waste can be transferred to a central repository.  In the DGEIS, the NRC notes that storage of spent fuel after expiration of a license time would continue under an aging management program to ensure that monitoring and maintenance are adequately performed. The DGEIS assumes that, at an appropriate time, structures, systems, and components of the spent fuel storage installation would be replaced as part of an approved aging management program.

The NRC emphasizes the generic nature of the DGEIS and states that it would not replace any National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis associated with any individual site licensing action.

The proposed waste-confidence rule was published in the September 13, 2013, FR


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