Texas firm files with NRC for interim storage site license for spent nuclear fuel

Waste Control Specialists (WCS), which already operates a radioactive waste disposal site in west Texas, has filed a license application with the NRC to build and operate an interim storage site for the nation’s commercial spent nuclear fuel

In a first of a kind action, WCS has filed the massive information request with the NRC for a license to build a operate a “consolidated interim storage facility” (CISF) at its west Texas facility located near Andrews, TX, and not far from the Texas / New Mexico border. The area is bone dry and sparsely populated located about 40 miles north of Odessa, TX.

spent_fuel_canister

Dry Cask for spent fuel. Image: World Nuclear Organization

WCS President Rod Baltzer said in a statement at the National Press Club that his firm expects the NRC to issue a final license three years from now. The facility could be open for business by 2021.

The WCS team views the CISF concept as a good option to get a national strategy underway for used nuclear fuel transfer, transport and management on the path to eventual long-term storage.

“We believe we can provide a safe interim solution for this used nuclear fuel, which has been accumulating at nuclear power plants across the country and for which our nation has been struggling to develop a comprehensive waste management system,” said Baltzer.

The proposal for the CISF is to obtain an initial 40 year storage license for 40,000 metric ton of commercial spent nuclear fuel that is ready for, or already in, storage in dry casks. The project will be built in eight phases of 5,000 metric ton each. The facility will seek license extensions in 20-year increments.

Baltzer says the site is expected to be in use for at least 60 years and as long as 100 years depending on the federal government’s ability to come up with a solution for future disposition of spent fuel.

The WCS NRC filing comes a year after a series of pre-application meetings with the NRC. In addition to getting the NRC license, the U.S. Department of Energy has to approve the transfer of the spent fuel from reactor storage sites around the country to the Texas site.  Congressional action might be needed to authorize DOE to approve moving the spent fuel from utility sites to the CISF.

In terms of how WCS makes money on the project, WCS sees the DOE as its sole customer. DOE would take title to the used nuclear fuel (UNF) as it leaves the reactor sites, and would pay for and arrange to transport it to WCS. DOE would pay WCS to store the UNF at the WCS site until it is shipped offsite to a national geological repository for final disposal.

  • WCS site by the numbers

The primary operation at the site will be to transfer sealed dry canisters of spent nuclear fuel from a transportation cask into an engineered interim fuel storage system. The WCS location has a rail spur and an on-site unloading facility. The company currently operates its privately-owned facility that is licensed to accept several forms of low-level radioactive waste. The new site would take up just over 30o acres at the 14,000 acre facility.

The application to the NRC includes partnerships with AREVA and NAC International. AREVA will support the license application and environmental review. Separately, AREVA and NAC will support licensing, design, construction, and operation of the CISF. Areva could also provide the project with its high-burnup fuel canisters for transport and storage solutions of spent fuel.

The World Nuclear Organization (WNO) reports that Areva and NAC between them represent 62% of existing dry storage systems in the USA, including 78% of the used nuclear fuel stored at sites where there is no longer an operating reactor.

WNO also reports the two companies also have considerable expertise in transport of used fuel by road and rail. Areva’s NUHOMS storage modules will be used for the CISF. These comprise banks of horizontal concrete cylinders 5 m long (16.5 ft)  and 2 m (6.5 ft) diameter into which sealed metal canisters are put.

Each canister holds over 30 PWR fuel assemblies or over 60 BWR ones. A PWR fuel assembly weighs approximately 370 Kg (815 lb) and a BWR fuel assembly weighs 655 Kg (1,444 lb). Weights vary by fuel type, reactor, and fuel assembly components. Typically a 1000 MWe reactor will discharge approximately 2 metric tons of high level waste each refueling.

A 1000 MWe reactor has about 100 metric tons of uranium dioxide fuel, of which 3 to 5 metric tonnes consist of the fissile U-235 isotope. A PWR will discharge 40 to 70 fuel assemblies; a BWR will discharge 120 to 200 fuel assemblies. (1 metric tonne equals 2,204 lbs). These numbers vary by reactor, fuel type, and other factors.

History of Dry Cask Storage

After 40 years of failed efforts by the U.S. government and Congress to come up with a permanent solution to managing spent nuclear fuel, the WCS site creates an opportunity to develop and deploy technologies to prepare it in dry storage away from the reactors that generated it in the first place.

drycask

Dry casks at a nuclear power plant. Photo: US NRC

In August 2014, after a two-year struggle, the NRC accepted reality and told 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 incentive to make progress towards either building a permanent geologic repository or a reprocessing facility.

The first use of dry storage of spent nuclear fuel took place in 1986. Since then the NRC has found that dry storage of spent nuclear fuel is effective and safe.

The consolidation of 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel will remove that material from storage at utility managed dry storage sites throughout the country including sites that have long since ceased to have operating reactors.

Critics of the plan argue that moving all this fuel from reactors to Texas poses a risk to urban population near rail lines carrying the spent fuel.

During the press club media event, AREVA VP Mike McMahon disputes that criticism. He said that his firm moves “tremendous amounts of material every day,” and he added, “the U.S. Navy transports nuclear fuel on a routine basis.”

Last December AREVA was awarded an $8.6 million contract by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the design and fabrication of railcars for nuclear material transportation. These railcars will be used for large-scale transport of used nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive material (HLRM) to interim and eventual permanent storage facilities.

This contract includes the conceptual design and dynamic modeling of HLRM transport casks cars as well as buffer cars, which provide spacing between the cask railcars and the locomotive. (Areva briefing materials)

Once the concepts are certified by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) for HLRM transport, AREVA will begin the fabrication of the prototype cask and buffer railcars.

NRC Licensing Process

The application from WCS discusses utilizing dry storage casks that have previously been approved by the NRC. The spent fuel would arrive already sealed in canisters, so the handling would be limited to moving the canisters from transportation to storage casks.

The NRC will conduct two parallel reviews – one of the safety and security aspects, the other of potential environment impacts.

Before those reviews get underway, the agency will review the application to see if it contains enough information that is of high enough quality to allow its engineers to do the detailed reviews. If it doesn’t, WCS will have a chance to provide the information requested by the agency.

2016-04-wcs-interim-storage-application-2

Photo: US NRC

The outputs of the NRC review of the license application include an environmental analysis and a safety evaluation report. The agency expect the review process to take about three years.

An unpredictable element in that timeline is that if interested parties ask for a hearing, and their petition is granted by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, then the board will consider specific “contentions,” or challenges to the NRC’s reviews of the safety, security or environmental aspects of the proposed facility.

The board will hold a hearing on any contentions that cannot be resolved by the NRC. These kinds of contentions, and hearings, have tied up proposals for new nuclear reactors for long periods of time.

The Safety Evaluation Report, the EIS, and the hearing need to be complete before the NRC staff can make a licensing decision. If the application meets its regulations, the agency is legally bound to issue a license.

The NRC does not consider whether there’s a need for the facility or whether it thinks it’s a good idea. The NRC’s reviews look only at the regulatory requirements.

Holtec plan for site in New Mexico

The NRC is also expecting an application for a second centralized interim storage facility Nov. 30. This one, to be filed by Holtec International, will be for a facility at a site in New Mexico.

Holtec announced in April 2015 that it plans to license and build a similar interim storage spent fuel facility in the far southeastern corner of New Mexico about 12 miles from the WIPP facility.

holtec NM spent fuel site

Map image: Holtec Intl

The firm said it will design, license, build and operate the storage facility, which will be an enlarged version of a dry cask system deployed at two nuclear plants in the U.S.

The firm says its facility will be designed for at least a 100 year service life and that dry cask storage of the fuel will allow it to be retrieved at any time in the future.

Holtec’s press statement does not list any other nuclear firms as partners in the project. However, the firm cites in its press statements strong support for the project from local economic development groups as well as elected officials at the state level and in Congress.

The firm has said it plans to submit its license application to the NRC next November.

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