DOE Unveils Used Nuclear Fuel Strategy

The Department of Energy (DOE) quietly unveiled a new strategy for the management and disposal of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel on Friday. The strategy calls for a phased, consent-based approach to siting and implementing a nuclear waste management and disposal system, and it endorses building a pilot interim storage facility by 2021.

The DOE describes the new strategy presented in an 18-page document, "Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste," as a "framework for moving toward a sustainable program to deploy an integrated system" to transport, store, and dispose of the nation’s used nuclear fuel. It serves as a "statement of Administration policy regarding the importance of addressing the disposition of used nuclear fuel," and presents the Obama administration’s response to the final report made by the Blue Ribbon Commission last year.

Essentially, it calls for a waste management system containing a pilot interim storage facility, followed by a larger, full-scale interim storage facility, and then a geologic repository in a timeframe that "prioritizes the acceptance of fuel from shut-down reactors."

An Operational Pilot Interim Storage Facility Within 10 Years

If the strategy gets congressional approval, the DOE will by 2021 have picked a site and design, obtained licenses, and built a "pilot interim storage facility" with an initial focus on accepting used nuclear fuel from shut-down reactor sites.

By 2025, the federal agency plans to have made "advances" toward siting and licenses of a larger interim storage facility that will "have sufficient capacity to provide flexibility in the waste management system and allows for acceptance of enough used nuclear fuel to reduce expected government liabilities." That facility could have a capacity of 20,000 metric tons heavy metal (MTHM) or greater and be located with the pilot facility or planned geologic repository, the documents says.

To have an operational geologic repository by 2048, the DOE plans to have picked a site for it by 2026 and to have that site characterized and the repository designed and licensed by 2042.

The document notes that the program will require new legislation for consent-based siting, a "reformed" funding approach, and the establishment of a new organization to implement the program, "the structure of which should balance greater autonomy with the need for continued Executive and Legislative branch oversight."

Until that organization has been authorized, the DOE would undertake transportation planning and acquisition activities needed to facilitate the acceptance of used nuclear fuel at the pilot interim storage facility that should be ready within a decade, the strategy suggests.

The strategy dodges committing to any particular fuel cycle. "Cost, nonproliferation, national security, environmental concerns, and technology limitations are some of the concerns that would need to be addressed before any future decision to close the U.S. fuel cycle through the use of recycling would be made. These factors reinforce the likelihood that the once-through fuel cycle will continue at least for the next few decades," it says. However, the DOE will continue conducting research on advanced fuel cycles, it added.

A Complex Spent Fuel History

Because it failed to meet contractual obligations with nuclear generators to begin accepting used nuclear fuel by 1998, the federal government is currently facing lawsuits from some utilities for damages to cover the costs of onsite, at-reactor spent nuclear fuel storage. More than 68,000 MTHM of used nuclear fuel are stored at 72 commercial power plants around the country, with about 2,000 MTHM added to that amount every year.

Reflecting the Obama administration’s opposition to the Yucca Mountain permanent nuclear waste repository, the DOE in 2010 withdrew from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) its June 2008–submitted application to license the Nevada facility and moved to terminate the project. The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board had initially denied the motion, but under the direction of the commission, suspended the proceeding (though it preserved necessary records to abide by budgetary constraints).

Several states, local government units, and companies later petitioned a the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to force the NRC to continue review of the DOE’s application. Defending itself in that legal case, the NRC told the court it could not comply on the grounds that it did not have sufficient congressionally appropriated funds to complete action on the license application (though it conceded it had $10.4 million to at least start the process). The federal court gave the NRC until the end of the 112th Congress, which ended on Jan. 1, to report back whether or not Congress had allocated funding to resume consideration of the application.

As the court-mandated deadline approached at the start of this year, NRC Senior Attorney Charles Mullins told the court that Congress’s failure to add funds to the Yucca Mountain review meant there is no reason to force it to resume the review. At the same time, petitioners seeking to force the federal regulatory body to resume review of the application said in their update to the court that Congress did not modify requirements to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which meant the NRC was still obligated to move forward with review of the DOE’s license application. It is unclear when the court will make a final ruling.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Circuit in a separate ruling struck down the NRC’s so-called "waste confidence" provisions in June last year, finding that an NRC ruling that said spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s power plants could be stored as long as 60 years after a plant’s operating license expires violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Following that decision, the NRC put on hold all final licensing decisions—including those for 19 construction and operation licenses, 12 license renewals, and one operating license—until the federal regulatory body could hash out how it will deal with spent nuclear fuel.

After the DOE abandoned the Yucca Mountain repository project, Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2010 chartered the Blue Ribbon Commission to conduct a two-year review and make recommendations for addressing the long-term management and disposal of the nation’s nuclear waste. The 15-member commission urged a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, but it recommended that immediate efforts should begin to develop at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility.

Sources: POWERnews, POWER, DOE, NRC

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)

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