APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Further, but misguided, action on spent fuel repository

Last Thursday, APR ran an article (click here) on actions that indicate a real future for a national spent fuel repository; the House guaranteed $10 million for continuation of the Yucca Mountain study by the NRC, and the DOE was rebuked by a Federal Court of Appeals for continuing to charge utility companies money for deposition in the spent fuel fund when there isn't any working plan to develop a national repository.

Yesterday, the future of the spent fuel repository - wherever it ends up, and whenever it gets built - seemed to have another positive contribution when the D.C. Court of Appeals threw out the NRC's "Waste Confidence Decision."

Click here to read the full Court of Appeals decision and considerations. (Thanks to Dan Yurman for the heads up on this.)

From the decision, we read the following introductory statement:

"This is another in the growing line of cases involving the federal government’s failure to establish a permanent repository for civilian nuclear waste."

One might think that the rest of the decision would be extremely positive for the nuclear industry, given that overall the indications of the industry have generally been that the Federal Government needs to finally live up to its legal obligations to research, build and operate a national HLW (High Level Waste) repository. But that's not the case; this is where the NRC's intent - and by "intent" I mean Chairman Jaczko's intent - to indicate that spent fuel is safe as-is, where-is only seems to have gone so far as was necessary to support the Chairman's assertion that there was no rush to build a national waste repository, making it then possible to kill the Yucca Mountain project. (At least, until Thursday.)

Below, the Nuclear Energy Institute's press release on this latest court decision.


Nuclear Energy Institute
For Release:June 8, 2012

NEI Responds to Court Ruling to Vacate NRC Waste Confidence Decision

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Nuclear Energy Institute’s Ellen C. Ginsberg, vice president and general counsel, made the following remarks in reaction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruling today to vacate and remand the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s waste confidence decision.

“We are disappointed by the court’s decision as we believe that the NRC supported its conclusions in the waste confidence decision. Nonetheless, we urge the commission to act expeditiously to undertake the additional environmental analysis identified by the court in the remand. We also encourage the agency to reissue the rule as soon as possible.

“We are pleased that the court specifically affirmed the agency’s discretion to address the environmental issues in a generic fashion using an environmental impact statement or an environmental assessment with a finding of no significant impact.”


What essentially has happened here is that the D.C. Court has come to believe that spent fuel in dry cask storage, and in spent fuel pools, is dangerous. In fact, in the decision, the Court -- which has no nuclear engineering experience whatsoever -- mentions the possibility of spent fuel pool fires as one possible event that needs more examination.

Quite recently, a piece that was presented at the ANS Nuclear Cafe totally demolished the concept of spent fuel pool fires at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, in large part because of the age of the fuel involved and the total coverage of many multiple layers of backup power and equipment on site, near the site and transportable to the site. (Structural integrity of the buildings was also another issue, clearly addressed. This piece was produced in response to ridiculous and hyperbolic claims being made in anti-nuclear circles about the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi site.

Translating this notion to conditions in the United States, and with that making the assumption that the NRC (and thus probably no one else) has studied spent fuel storage enough to say whether or not it is safe as-is, where-is, is erroneous. In the ANS article, clear reference is made to a document with the following title:

NUREG / CR-4982 "Severe Accidents in Spent Fuel Pools in support of Generic Safety Issue 82."

This document, bearing a NUREG identifier, is clearly a Nuclear Regulatory Commission document. This document dates from mid-1987. This is by no means the only document ever produced on the subject. Even the simplest examination of the document, namely its title and publication date indicates that the NRC has been considering spent fuel conditions at existing plants for twenty-five years at least, and has considered worst-case scenarios (even though their likelihood is negligible in the case of spent fuel storage in the U.S.) There is much more work on the subject that can be found, but the point is that the NRC did in fact have good ground to stand on in saying that spent fuel is safe where it is now, as it is now.

The problem is that we will still eventually run out of room for it - and the utilities will still probably be paying the DOE whether a national facility is built rapidly or slowly.

Chairman Jaczko, then, was probably completely correct in his various statements that spent fuel can reside where it is for quite a few more years yet; it appears as if the Court thinks that this was an uninformed and all too convenient assumption. What the Court is not aware of, apparently, is decades of work on spent fuel safety and what the real situation concerning spent fuel at varied U.S. plants really is. With luck, this will all be reasserted as the NRC works to reissue the Waste Confidence Rule.

6:15 PM Eastern 6/9/2012

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