NRC to Start EIS, Revise Waste Confidence Rule for Spent Nuclear Fuel

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Thursday directed its staff to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) and a revised waste confidence decision and rule on the temporary storage of spent nuclear fuel (SNF). Last week’s decision was in response to a June 8 federal court ruling, which said the NRC had erred in deciding that SNF from the nation’s power plants could be stored as long as 60 years after a plant’s operating license expires.

The EIS and revised rule are expected to be completed within 24 months. In a Staff Requirements Memorandum, the NRC said the staff should draw on the agency’s "long, rich history" with waste confidence determinations as well as work performed by other agencies, such as environmental assessments, technical studies and reports addressing the impacts of transportation and consolidated storage of spent fuel.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on June 8 issued a unanimous decision that said even though SNF cannot be used to generate power, it "poses a dangerous, long-term health and environmental risk." The court noted that "determining how to dispose of the growing volume of SNF, which may reach 150,000 metric tons by the year 2050, is a serious problem."

In that case, petitioners—four states (N.Y., N.J., Vt., and Conn.), the Prairie Island Indian Community, and a number of environmental groups—challenged a 2010 update to the NRC’s Waste Confidence Decision (WCD), which was a result of a 1979 decision by the same court of appeals remanding the NRC’s decision to allow the expansion of spent-fuel pools at two nuclear plants. The NRC should have considered the potential environmental effects in the event a permanent repository for disposing of spent fuel is never built, the court said, finding other deficiencies with the agency’s consideration of leaks and fires involving spent fuel pools.

In August, the NRC’s five commissioners voted 5–0 to suspend final issuance of license renewals and new operating licenses—including those for 19 combined construction and operating licenses, 12 license renewals, and one operating license—until the federal body can hash out how it will deal with SNF. That order remains in effect.

On Sept. 6, the commission directed staff to revise the waste confidence rule to satisfy "deficiencies" found by the court. "Resolving this issue successfully is a Commission priority," said newly installed NRC Chairman Allison M. Macfarlane. "Waste confidence plays a core role in many major licensing actions, such as new reactors and license renewals. I applaud my fellow Commissioners for their swift action in setting a path forward to resolve the Court’s remand, and we have confidence in the staff’s ability to meet this demanding deadline."

The NRC also directed staff to "provide ample opportunity for public comment" on the EIS and rule, as well as to seek ways to make the EIS and rulemaking process more efficient. It said the staff should form an inter-office team of the agency’s most accomplished environmental experts to develop the EIS and resolve comments "with the urgency that this matter deserves."

Sources: POWERnews, NRC

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)

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