Questions and Answers – Waste Confidence & Future Plans
How long is spent fuel allowed to be stored in a pool or cask?
NRC regulations do not specify a maximum time for storing spent fuel in pool or cask. The agency’s “waste confidence decision” expresses the Commission’s confidence that the fuel can be stored safely in either pool or cask for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life of any reactor without significant environmental effects. At current licensing terms (40 years of initial reactor operation plus 20 of extended operation), that would amount to at least 120 years of safe storage.
However, it is important to note that this does not mean NRC “allows” or “permits” storage for that period. Dry casks are licensed or certified for 20 years, with possible renewals of up to 40 years. This shorter licensing term means the casks are reviewed and inspected, and the NRC ensures the licensee has an adequate aging management program to maintain the facility.
The most recent waste confidence findings say that fuel can be stored safely for 60 years beyond the reactor’s licensed life. Does this mean fuel will be unsafe starting in 2059 [60 years after Dresden 1's original license ended]? What if the spent fuel pool runs out of room even before the end of a reactor license? What is the NRC going to do about this?
The NRC staff is currently developing an extended storage and transportation (EST) regulatory program. One aspect of this program is a safety and environmental analysis to support long-term (up to 300 years) storage and handling of spent fuel, as well as associated updates to the “waste confidence” rulemaking. This analysis will include an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the environmental impacts of extended storage of fuel. The 300-year timeframe is appropriate for characterizing and predicting aging effects and aging management issues for EST. The staff plans to consider a variety of cask technologies, storage scenarios, handling activities, site characteristics, and aging phenomena—a complex assessment that relies on multiple supporting technical analyses. Any revisions to the waste confidence rulemaking, however, would not be an “approval” for waste to be stored longer than before—we do that through the licensing and certification of ISFSIs and casks. More information on the staff’s plan can be found in SECY-11-0029.
Does the waste confidence decision mean that a particular cask is safe?
Not specifically. When the NRC issues of certificates and licenses for specific dry cask storage systems, the staff makes a determination that the designs provide reasonable assurance that the waste will be stored safely for the term of the license or certificate. The Commission’s Waste Confidence Decision is a generic action where the Commission found reasonable assurance that the waste from the nation’s nuclear facilities can be stored safely and with minimal environmental impacts until a repository becomes available.
The waste-confidence revision seems like a long-term effort. What is the NRC doing to improve safety of spent fuel storage now?
The NRC staff is currently reviewing its processes to identify near-term ways to improve efficiency and effectiveness in licensing, inspection, and enforcement. We expect to identify enhancements to the certification and licensing of storage casks, to the integration of inspection and licensing, and to our internal procedures and guidance. More information on the staff’s plans can be found in COMSECY-10-0007.
The NRC is reviewing applications for new nuclear power plants. What is the environmental impact of all that extra fuel?
Continued use and potential growth of nuclear power is expected to increase the amount of waste in storage. This increased amount of spent fuel affects the environmental impacts to be assessed by the NRC staff, such as the need for larger storage capacities. In the staff’s plan to develop an environmental impact statement for longer-term spent fuel storage, a preliminary scoping assumption is that nuclear power grows at a “medium” rate (as defined by the Department of Energy), in which nuclear power continues to supply about 20 percent of U.S. electricity production.
Questions and Answers – Security
What about security? How do you know terrorists won’t use all of this waste against us?
For spent fuel, as with reactors, the NRC sets security requirements and licensees are responsible for providing the protection. We constantly remain aware of the capabilities of potential adversaries and threats to facilities, material, and activities, and we focus on physically protecting and controlling spent fuel to prevent sabotage, theft, and diversion. Some key features of these protection programs include intrusion detection, assessment of alarms, response to intrusions, and offsite assistance when necessary. Over the last 20 years, there have been no radiation releases that have affected the public. There have also been no known or suspected attempts to sabotage spent fuel casks or storage facilities. The NRC responded to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, by promptly requiring security enhancements for spent fuel storage, both in spent fuel pools and dry casks.