Commenting on the Waste Confidence Decision

December 24, 2013 | 11:52 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

In December 2010, the NRC issued a waste confidence rule with its determination that spent fuel could safely remain at nuclear power plant sites after reactors permanently shut down. This rule was necessary because the federal government has not provided a repository for disposal of spent fuel. The original waste confidence rule issued in 1984 determined that spent fuel could be safely stored onsite for three decades while a repository was sited, constructed, and opened.

The federal government’s first deadline for opening the repository was January 1998. As that deadline passed and it became clear that new deadlines were speculative, the NRC updated its waste confidence rule. The most recent version was issued in December 2010 and determined that spent fuel could be safety stored at plant sites for six decades after reactors permanently shut down.

Several entities, including the States of New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and Connecticut, and the National Resources Defense Council and Riverkeeper among a coalition of environmental organizations, legally challenged the NRC’s waste confidence decision. In June 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the NRC’s waste confidence rule and remanded it back to the agency.

With the waste confidence rule vacated, the NRC cannot issue licenses for new reactor or relicense existing reactors.

NRC’s Next Steps

The NRC prepared a draft generic environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Protection Act seeking to address the shortcomings identified by the court. The final generic environmental impact statement would then be used by the NRC to support its issuance of another waste confidence rule.

The NRC examined three phases after reactors permanently shut down. During phase one, expected to last up to 60 years, the NRC considered that some irradiated fuel would continue to be stored in spent fuel pools at the site. During phase two, potentially lasting up to 100 years, the NRC considered that all irradiated fuel would be in dry storage at the sites until transferred to a federal repository. The third phase lasted indefinitely until a repository accepted the fuel.

The NRC published its draft generic environmental impact statement in the Federal Register for public comment. I prepared a declaration on behalf of a coalition of environmental organizations that was submitted on December 20, 2013, the closing date for the public comment period.

Public Comments

Materials submitted on behalf of the environmental groups was posted online here and here.

Background materials and comments submitted on the NRC’s draft generic environmental impact statement by all parties can be found online here by typing NRC-2012-0246 in the search box and clicking the blue Search link. To see the public comments submitted on the draft generic environmental impact statement, click the little box beside the Public Submission item under Document Type on the left side of the returned hit list. When I did this on December 23, 2013, the 22-hit list grew to 737 hits.

My declaration focused on leaks of radioactive water from spent fuel pools during the six decade period after reactors permanently shut down. The NRC had concluded that any leaks would be readily detected before the water migrated offsite to cause harm. My declaration pointed out that this has not been true in the past and becomes less likely to be true in the future because regulatory requirements and regulatory oversight shrink dramatically after reactors permanently shut down. The NRC falsely assumed that existing requirements and oversight remain as-is.

For example, the NRC ordered owners in March 2012 to install reliable instrumentation to monitor spent fuel pool water levels by year-end 2016. The owners of the Crystal River 3 and Kewaunee reactors that permanently shut down this year asked the NRC to rescind that requirement. The NRC approved the rescission for Crystal River 3 and is still considering it for Kewaunee. It’s hard to find water leaking from a spent fuel pool in Wisconsin using water level instrumentation sitting in a warehouse in Wichita.