After a two-year struggle, the regulatory agency accepts reality and tells nuclear utilities they can store it above ground indefinitely
In a unanimous vote on August 26, 2014, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission lifted a two-year ban on licensing new nuclear plants by approving a proposed rule governing the storage of spent nuclear fuel. The decision takes off the table for the near term future any progress towards either building a permanent geologic repository or a reprocessing facility.
The decision comes in response to a ruling 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals (D.C.) that struck down the NRCs revision of the waste confidence rule that punted the future of a geologic repository into the indefinite future. As a result of the court’s decision, the NRC suspended final licensing decisions on new reactors, reactor license renewals, and license renewals for spent fuel storage facilities.
The new rule will likely be music to the ears of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) who made it his mission in life to oppose opening of Yucca Mountain. Reid pushed the appointment of Gregory Jaczko as NRC Chairman politicizing what had been a technocratic post. Jaczko resigned the position before the end of his term amidst controversy over his erratic management style and inability to work with the four other commissioners at the agency. Two of them submitted complaints about Jaczko to President Obama who had deferred to Sen. Reid about Jaczko’s appointment in the first place.
The current chair of the NRC, Allison Macfarlane, while voting for the new rule, said that once existing plants are decommissioned, that security for them could be reduced because of lower risks.
Reaction to the ruling
While the noise level has gone down at the NRC, it is possible there will be new litigation over the current decision. The Natural Resources Defense Council told the New York Times its analysis is that “the commission failed to follow the express direction of the court.”
Industry reaction to the new waste confidence rule was generally favorable. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) focused in a press statement on the restart of decision making for nuclear reactor license renewals and early site permits for new ones.
NEI also pointed out “NRC’s analysis of used fuel pool fires concludes that their likelihood is very low, diminishing to zero as fuel cools within the first few years after shutdown.”
New lamps for old
The NRC will now resume its review of the license renewal of Indian Point reactors Unit 2 & Unit 3. No licenses for new reactors in the 1000MW and up category were significantly impacted by the two-year pause.
However, promoters of small nuclear reactors (SMRs) are hopeful the NRC will now move to consider their applications. NuScale Power is currently pushing forward with a 50MW design. In the U.S. Babcock & Wilcox and Westinghouse have both stepped back from their commitments to design and licensing their respective SMR designs citing a lack of customer interest.
The record low price of natural gas in the U.S. appears to have put the future of new reactors on the back burner. However, TVA is moving to complete its 1,150 MW Watts Bar 2 plant by 2015 at a cost of about $4-5 billion.
How much spent fuel is out there?
According to the Congressional Research Service (using NEI data), there were 62,683 metric tons of commercial spent fuel accumulated in the United States as of the end of 2009.
Of that total, 48,818 metric tons – or about 78 percent – were in pools.
13,856 metric tons – or about 22 percent – were stored in dry casks.
The total increases by 2,000 to 2,400 tons annually. NEI puts the volume at 69,720 metric tons as of the end of 2013.
NEI published a map and estimate by state of spent nuclear fuel. Download here.
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