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May 22, 2014
Uncertain future for LLRW disposal

When compared to the fruitless attempts to develop a repository for spent nuclear reactor fuel, the nation’s low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) program is a model of efficiency.  But the LLRW program is facing an uncertain future because of a range of new and potential developments, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 

Consequently, the NRC is currently updating its 2007 strategic assessment of the LLRW program and soliciting public comments on the process.  Among the issues under review are revisions of three possible futures for the LLRW program, which the NRC terms “optimistic,” “realistic,” and “pessimistic.”  

Three classes, four facilities

LLRW is solid material such as gloves and other protective clothing, glass and laboratory supplies, machine parts and tools, nuclear power plant equipment, and disposable medical items that come into contact with radioactive materials.  There are three LLRW classes, A, B, and C, with A representing the lowest radioactive level and the shortest half-lives.  Categories B and C contain greater concentrations of radionuclides and have longer half-lives.  However, even the radioactivity of B and C LLRW will fade to natural background levels in less than 500 years.  Class A LLRW comprises about 95 percent of all LLRW.

In the United States,  there are four LLRW disposal facilities that are licensed by what the NRC calls agreement states and that collectively receive LLRW from all the states.  The facilities in Barnwell, South Carolina; Richland, Washington; and Andrews County, Texas, are licensed by their respective states to accept Classes A, B, and C LLRW, while the facility in Clive, Utah, is licensed by Utah for Class A waste only. 

New issues

According to the NRC, new issues that warrant a revision of the 2007 strategic assessment include the following:

  • The desire of industry for greater flexibility and reliability in LLRW disposal options;
  • Increased storage capacity for Class B and C LLRW because of the limited access of the Barnwell, South Carolina, disposal facility in 2008 to out-of-compact waste generators;
  • The potential need to dispose of large quantities of power plant decommissioning waste as well as depleted uranium from enrichment facilities;
  • The limited resources in the NRC LLRW program;
  • Increased security concerns related to storing LLRW in general and sealed radioactive sources in particular as a result of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack; and
  • New wastestreams that may be generated, for example, by the next generation of nuclear reactors and the potential reemergence of nuclear fuel reprocessing in the United States.

Scenarios

These issues are incorporated by the NRC into the three revised future scenarios.  For example:

  • Under the optimistic scenario, there is ample capacity for safe storage of all three LLRW classes; no new technical innovations are needed; no significant events involving the public safety, security, or the environment occur; and the cost of storage remains low.
  • Under the realistic scenario, LLRW disposal options are few, and approvals continue to be made on a case-by-case basis that takes significant time. The LLRW regulatory framework is relatively stable, but necessarily reactive to certain circumstances, such as development of new technology, external events, and innovations in waste processing, stabilization, and storage technology.
  • Under the pessimistic scenario, disposal capacity for all types of LLRW is severely constrained and costs of disposal are prohibitively high for many generators.  Escalating costs become the driver for significant innovations in processing and storage technology. The public becomes concerned about potential safety impacts of LLRW storage as it becomes increasingly aware of its widespread use by licensees.

NRC’s request for comment on updating the strategic assessment was published in the May 15, 2014, FR.  Also, on March 7, 2014, the NRC hosted a workshop on updating the strategic assessment. 

A summary of the workshop under accession no. ML14092A114.

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