Senate Nuclear Waste Bill: No Near-Term Benefit for Public Safety

December 10, 2013 | 10:25 am
David Wright
Former contributor

Third of 3 posts on spent fuel safety

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources (ENR) Committee is set to consider a waste management bill for nuclear power reactors—the Nuclear Waste Administration Act—in mid-December. The authors argue that their bill is urgently needed to protect the public since nuclear waste currently stored at reactor sites poses a safety risk that must be reduced now.

However, in its current form the legislation does not address the near-term risks of nuclear waste storage at reactor sites. It would therefore do nothing to increase public safety for the foreseeable future.

Increasing Public Safety

The bill’s primary author, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), has said (emphasis added):

“This bill takes immediate steps to more safely store the most dangerous radioactive waste, and lays out a clear plan for a permanent solution.” (June 28, 2013)

“Our goal with this legislation is to get the permanent repository program back on track and to make sure spent fuel and nuclear defense waste is handled safely until it is.” (July 30, 2013)

However, the legislation’s focus is laying the groundwork for consolidated interim storage sites that would hold nuclear reactor waste until a permanent repository eventually opens. Since interim waste sites will not become a reality for many years, if not decades, waste will continue to be stored at reactor sites for the foreseeable future. So under this bill, nothing would change for years to reduce the risk posed by current nuclear waste storage.

That’s a problem because over 70% of the 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel from U.S. reactors is currently sitting in overcrowded cooling pools at reactor sites. Congress should require nuclear plant owners to transfer a large percentage of this nuclear waste to steel and cement dry casks, which are a safer and more secure way to store spent nuclear fuel at the reactor sites while it is waiting to be moved offsite to interim or permanent storage. That would increase public safety now.

Uncertainties Undermine “Adequate Protection”

Spent fuel pool. Source: DOE, via Wikimedia Commons

While storage of spent fuel in dry casks is known to be safer than storage in pools, the NRC says that storage in pools provides the public “adequate protection.” However, UCS believes the uncertainties in analyses of loss-of-coolant accidents and spent fuel fires are so large that plants need to have substantial safety margins, and that these margins can be achieved only through reducing pool inventories well below the densely packed configuration that many plants now have. The recent NRC staff report on spent fuel pool risks does not change our opinion, since its analysis does not consider, for example, terrorist attacks on the pools or other possible scenarios.

We therefore believe the recent NRC staff recommendation to stop further consideration of such transfers is not justified by its studies, and is not in the best interests of increasing public safety.

While the Senate’s effort to find a path to a permanent repository for nuclear waste is important and commendable, Congress must not sidestep the near-term risk posed by storing waste at reactor sites in over-crowded pools. The Senate’s waste management bill will do nothing to increase public safety in the foreseeable future if it does not require accelerated transfers of nuclear waste from pools to dry casks.