Legal & Regulatory

NRC Chairman Floats Plan for Long-Term Spent Fuel Storage

The United States appears to be on the verge of fully abandoning deep geologic storage of high-level nuclear waste in favor of above-ground facilities. Such a move would represent a retreat from some 50 years of U.S. policy and could revive an acrimonious dispute that was a feature of the congressional debate over the now-failed Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982.

Both regulators and the industry seem to be backing quickly away from underground storage in the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to kill the waste repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain site and the disinclination of Congress to do anything about the abandonment. Nuclear power plant owners now seem more intent on recovering the money that went into the Yucca Mountain fiasco than on rescuing the repository.

With his agency poised to decide the fate of the Obama administration’s plan to eliminate the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Gregory Jaczko has proposed that NRC staff look at the effects of "indefinitely" storing spent reactor fuel at nuclear plants or dedicated storage sites—perhaps for up to 300 years. According to several industry observers, the NRC is likely to approve Jaczko’s proposal to update the agency’s so-called "waste confidence" rule, a legally required finding by the NRC that the nation has a workable long-term plan for managing spent fuel.

The NRC must approve the waste confidence rule before it can license new nuclear plants that will add to the nation’s growing stockpile of spent reactor fuel, which is now stored at nuclear plants around the country. The NRC has been trying to revise the existing waste confidence rule for months and also must deal with the administration’s decision to withdraw the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) application for a license for Yucca Mountain.

Last June, an independent NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel said the department does not have authority to withdraw the application, which the agency submitted in June 2008. The administration has asked the NRC to reverse that judgment by the ASLB, arguing that the application is an administrative document and under the ultimate discretion of the energy secretary, not the NRC. Should it lose, many observers suspect that the administration will seek review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Against that backdrop, Jaczko’s new waste confidence proposal essentially says the commission is satisfied that U.S. spent fuel will be managed safely through a combination of storage for up to 60 years after any plant closes and burial in a repository that will be developed "in the foreseeable future." A veteran of nuclear politics in Washington commented, "Foreseeable future is probably code for ‘never.’"

Importantly, Jaczko’s proposal is somewhat looser than the most recently proposed waste confidence update, which would have tied the waste confidence decision to a repository opening within 50 to 60 years of the time that any U.S. reactor closes. Republican members of the NRC refused to support that change last fall, largely as a result of the Obama administration’s decision to kill Yucca.

Eliminating a specific repository timeframe from the new waste confidence rule would please nuclear utilities. "Our view is that the [most recent] proposal is close to what we recommended; it looks okay to us," said Steven Kraft, senior director of used fuel management at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a trade group representing nuclear utilities.

More interesting than Jaczko’s rule revision is his suggestion, in text accompanying his waste confidence rule proposal, that NRC staff analyze the possibility of much longer—indeed potentially "indefinite"—spent fuel storage. Jaczko discussed the possibility of indefinite storage despite recommending the "foreseeable future" language.

It does not appear that Jaczko is proposing to formally include mention of longer-term storage in the new waste confidence rule, but instead wants NRC staff to begin looking at the issue for possible inclusion in a later iteration of the rule. "While I remain confident that we will achieve a safe and environmentally sound means to permanently dispose of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, I believe that the prudent course of action is to direct the staff to conduct further analysis and update the waste confidence findings to account for the possibility of additional, indefinite storage of spent nuclear fuel," he said.

"While I believe that the staff’s analysis showing that storage will be safe and will not result in environmental consequences for 100 years should be more than adequate to account for the time until permanent disposal becomes available, an understanding of the consequences of storage for longer periods of time will be helpful in informing future commission policy decisions on the subject," said Jaczko. He proposed that the staff prepare an update to the proposed waste confidence rule "to account for storage at onsite storage facilities, offsite storage facilities, or both, for more than 100 years but not longer than 300 years, from the end of licensed operation of any nuclear power plant, which may include the term of a revised of renewed license."

That appears to be a longer storage period than the NRC has contemplated previously, although the agency has clearly been moving in that direction. In February, the NRC told its staff to comprehensively review the NRC’s oversight of spent fuel storage and shipping and consider new rules to allow storage at existing sites for more than 120 years.

Among other implications, longer storage would produce maintenance and security costs well beyond what utilities have generally contemplated financing. Additional storage costs would have to be borne by utility ratepayers, but utilities then likely would take legal action to demand reimbursement of those costs by the DOE. Utilities already are suing the DOE for damages over its failure to meet contractual requirements to begin disposing of their spent fuel in 1998 at Yucca Mountain. Alternatively, the additional spent fuel storage and security costs could be borne directly by the DOE if it took title to the spent fuel.

Industry officials have long suspected that Jaczko would oppose Yucca Mountain. He was a long-time aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who bitterly opposes having a repository in his home state and lobbied the Bush administration to name Jaczko to the NRC and the Obama administration to name him chairman. Jaczko, a nuclear physicist by training, has given no indication of what he might do on Yucca. He has generally been seen as an even-handed commissioner and chairman.

As a practical matter, on-site, above-ground storage is the only current method for dealing with spent nuclear fuel beyond using spent fuel pools, which have capacities designed around assumptions about the availability of long-term solutions. Recognizing that circumstance, and understanding the politics of nuclear waste, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) last summer issued a new handbook on managing high-level waste from power plants. The document focuses on above-ground, dry storage. An EPRI spokesman said, "With all U.S. nuclear power plants expected to implement dry storage by 2025, sharing of best practices and greater awareness of known and potential technical issues will enable safe, reliable, cost-effective management of used fuel over long time horizons. The report, Industry Spent Fuel Storage Handbook, analyzes nuclear industry experience in managing increasing quantities of spent fuel assemblies."

During the heated debate over the 1982 waste act, the nuclear industry pushed for "monitored, retrievable storage," or MRS, as part of the answer to spent fuel. The concept was that away-from-reactor dry storage would get the spent fuel off the plant site and out of the purview of local opponents while a geologic repository was developed. Environmentalists pushed hard for the underground storage–only approach and saw MRS as a backdoor way to preserve the option of reprocessing spent fuel into reactor-grade plutonium. They won that battle.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Jeff Beattie is a reporter for The Energy Daily.

SHARE this article