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NRC’s Waste Confidence Update

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher, NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

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  • Jan 26, 2012

puntThe U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced in early January it is starting work on an update to the Waste Confidence decision. With the Obama administration’s successful bid to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository project, one of the agency’s key assumptions for the update is that interim storage of spent fuel will be the norm for up to 200 years after a reactor’s operations come to an end.

Most recently revised in December 2010, the Waste Confidence decision states that disposal of spent fuel is technically feasible and will eventually be made available. The decision conveys the NRC’s confidence that until disposal is available, the material can be managed safely under the NRC’s oversight. Where or how that management takes place is not spelled out.

C.J. Milmoe, an attorney in private practice based in Arlington, VA, tells FCW the NRC’s latest move to update the decision “is a punt, and it is an instance of kicking the can down the road.”
Consider his point in light of the fact that the original waste confidence rule was issued in 1984, revised in 1989, and published in its latest form just a year ago.

It originally addressed the safe management of spent fuel for 30 years beyond what was then the initial 40-year licensed lifespan of reactors. The current rule posits 60 years of post operational safe storage.

The new NRC effort announced Jan. 3 now contemplates a timeframe that is 200 years or nearly three times longer. It will take the agency about six years to complete the required environmental impact statement and update to the Waste Confidence decision.

Paying twice for the same deal
overpaymentMilmoe wonders if all this work is even necessary. He says “spent fuel at a reactor site is a reality regardless of the time frame for the waste confidence rule. The NRC and the reactor operator are responsible for the safety of the spent fuel in perpetuity until DOE takes title to it and relocates it to an interim or permanent storage site.”

Not only does Milmoe think that “the [NRC] exercise to update the Waste Confidence Rule is meaningless,” he points out U.S. taxpayers are paying twice for spent fuel storage. The first payment is the more obvious of the two: those that use electricity generated by nuclear power plants pay a levy into the Nuclear Waste Fund.

The second payment is more subtle. Every time a federal claims court rules that the Energy Department has failed to meet its Nuclear Waste Policy Act responsibilities, the suing utility is awarded a judgment paid out of the U.S. government’s general revenue account.

According to The Wall Street Journal, as of last August the Nuclear Waste Fund contained $25 billion, with an estimated $16 billion in liability payments had been or will be paid to utilities. For the $41 billion involved, the U.S. could have built at least two interim storage sites and an 800 ton/year spent fuel reprocessing plant.

Failure is not an option

Lake Barrett
Lake Barrett

And Milmoe isn’t the only critic who’s hair spontaneously lights on fire when the subject of Yucca Mountain and the Waste Confidence Decision comes up.

Lake Barrett led the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management and also worked at the NRC. He told FCW the six year roadmap for revision to the Waste Confidence Rule is a case of the NRC “slow walking the issue.”

The reason the agency is dragging its heels, Barrett says, is that it is a reflection of Chairman Jaczko’s desire to avoid a case of the emperor not having any clothes.

There is no ‘Plan B” to Yucca Mountain. For this reason, Barrett thinks updating the Waste Confidence Decision is necessary because of pending litigation.

He says there could be real potential consequences for the federal government’s current state of denial. Barrett says that a credible waste confidence rule is “fundamental for the operational status of nuclear plants.”

Within a year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is likely to rule on litigation over the government’s failure to open Yucca Mountain. One of the potential outcomes of the case is that the court could issue an order stopping all new reactor licensing, and relicensing, until the government figures out what to do with the current inventory of spent fuel before making any more. In a worst case scenario, the entire U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors could be shut down.

Barrett says, “core reload licenses could be challenged. The motivation of these challenges will be the shut down all nuclear plants in the country.”

And the NRC isn’t the only group dragging its heels. Barrett fumes that the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission “has taken us backwards 25 years.”

“There is no realistic path forward for dealing with spent fuel in their draft report.”

The final BRC report is expected by the end of this month.

NEI’s reality check
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), whose members include the nation’s nuclear utilities, acknowledges that there is a possibility that the fuel will remain in storage at reactors for extended periods.

Rod McCullum, NEI’s Director, Used Fuel Programs, told FCW the reason is there is considerable uncertainty about when a repository will be built, but that the organization continues to press for progress.

That does not mean the organization is endorsing an option of perpetual storage at the nations reactors.

He told FCW the industry still strongly maintains that DOE must fulfill its statutory and contractual obligations.

McCullum says NEI would prefer to see the spent fuel moved from reactors to interim storage sites and that option includes recycling.

Recycling option
spent_fuel_canisterAssuming the Waste Confidence Decision is revised with a 200 year time frame, then what? Rip Anderson, a nuclear scientist with experience at DOE laboratories, told FCW his research shows that it is safe to store spent fuel at reactors in dry casks, or other secure places, for very long periods of time.

However, he pointed out that once you start working with timeframes of hundreds of years, the spent fuel becomes less dangerous to reprocess, and he says, “we will want to reprocess it.”

“The current process is not smart. It is like burning the bark off a log and then throwing away the log.”

Frozen in place
Where does this leave us? Critics have used the metaphor of “kicking the can down the road,” and “slow walking the issue.” A better metaphor might be “frozen in place.”

Nothing will change, short of a startling outcome from current litigation, until at least the end of the current decade. In terms of the extended storage scenario of up to 200 years, that might be a comfort to anyone in elected office today since by 2212 they will long since passed the baton to distant generations.

Background – What is the NRC trying to do?
NRC’s process steps, which will take it to 2019 to complete, starts with a public comment period to support its update of the preliminary assumptions for an environmental impact statement (EIS). That document, when published six years from now, will contain an analysis of the effects of storing spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s commercial power reactors for up to 200 years.

The scoping process for the EIS will address several storage scenarios. The alternatives include the current practice of storing spent fuel at reactors, developing regional sites or a centralized site for interim storage, or a combination of storage options and reprocessing. It assumes that the 200 year clock will start ticking sometime about 2050.

In the meantime, the NRC assumes a scenario best described in sailing terms as “steady as she goes.” It means that even under an extended storage scenarios of 60 years, the NRC will continue to regulate the management of spent fuel under a program similar to the one it has in place now.

NRC’s schedule to revise the Waste Confidence decision
The NRC will hold an online webinar on the update to the Waste Confidence decision on January 31, 2012 from 2:00-3:300 PM eastern time. The agency’s public meeting notice has details on how to participate in the webinar.
Process Milestones
· April 2012 – publish a final report on preliminary assumptions for the EIS
· 2012-2013 – develop preliminary information for the EIS scoping process
· 2013 – Federal Register notice of intent to develop the EIS
· 2013-2016 – Develop the EIS, draft decision and possible proposed rule
· 2017-2019 – Draft EIS published, draft Waste Confidence Decision for public comment, final decision and rule.

This is my updated coverage from Fuel Cycle Week, V11, N456, 1/19/12 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC
John Englert's picture
John Englert on Jan 26, 2012

So we have come to the point where a few casino owners in Las Vegas can influence 20% of US electricity production.  

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Jan 28, 2012

I am glad Yucca Mountain has been stopped, it has been a huge waste of money.

Only 5% of spent fuel is waste (fission products), 95% is unburned fuel, uranium 238 and plutonium. Imagine that internal combustion engines burned only 5% of their fuel and passed the rest out the exhaust pipe with the combustion products. Would you;

A ___ Collect the unburned fuel and exhaust products, put them in an expensive container, and bury them under Yucca Mountain.

B ___ Bury the combustion products and recycle the unburned fuel.

That is our choice with nuclear power. Option A can meet our needs for several hundred years but option B can provide all our energy needs for tens of thousands of years. R&D to develop breeder reactors capable of consuming uranium 238 and thorium was cut off in the 80’s, a huge mistake.

We need to restart an all out R&D program to develop safe breeder reactors, especially molten salt reactor technology. The billions of dollars collected to pay for waste disposal can be used to pay for that, because the new reactor designs will effectively eliminate the waste problem.

 As time goes by the value of the material in spent fuel increases while the cost of reprocessing decreases. When those two curves cross reprocessing becomes economically attractive and should begin.

Uranium and plutonium are recycled into advanced reactors, useful fission products are sold.

Unused waste, toxic for only about 300 years, is buried under the seabed.


Dan Yurman's picture
Thank Dan for the Post!
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