U.S. NRC Blog

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Deciphering the Waste Confidence Order

On Tuesday, the five-member Commission issued an Order directing the staff not to issue licenses for new reactors or to issue renewed licenses for existing reactors for the time being. The Order, understandably, caused a flurry of interest among news media, financial analysts, the nuclear industry and activists, all of whom scrambled to decipher the Order’s ramifications.

The potential impact is enormous – the Order affects licensing reviews for as many as 21 new reactors and 12 license renewals for existing reactors. It does not affect licenses already issued or renewed.

Let’s be clear: Tuesday’s Order was not a “Full Stop” to NRC’s licensing process. The Commission stated that licensing reviews should move forward– only final licensing was put on hold.

The Order comes in the context of a June 8 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that struck down the NRC’s waste confidence decision and rule, as updated in 2010.

“Waste confidence,” as we typically call it, is a generic finding that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored at reactor sites for decades in either spent fuel pools or dry casks, and that a repository will be available for final disposal of the spent fuel.

Waste confidence is often mistaken for an authorization – permission to store fuel onsite for an extended period of time – but it is really a generic environmental finding that allows our environmental reviews for new reactors or reactor license renewal to proceed without considering the site-specific effects of spent fuel storage in each individual application’s environmental analysis.

The Appeals Court ruled that NRC should have analyzed the environmental consequences of never building a permanent waste repository, and that NRC’s discussion of potential spent fuel pool leaks or fires was inadequate.

As soon as the Court issued its ruling, two things happened: The NRC staff began analyzing the potential impacts on our licensing reviews and developing a proposed path forward to meet the Court’s requirements; and activist groups filed petitions requesting that the agency halt licensing until the waste confidence question is resolved.

Tuesday’s Order was in response to those petitions. Essentially, the Order represents a regulatory agency taking a deep breath while trying to decide the best way to satisfy the Court.

“Because of the recent court ruling striking down our current waste confidence provisions, we are now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue, which could include generic or site-specific NRC actions, or some combination of both,” the Commission said in the Order. “We have not yet determined a course of action.” In the meantime, “we will not issue licenses dependent upon [waste confidence] until the court’s remand is appropriately addressed.” Licensing reviews and proceedings should continue, the Commission said.

The Commission also directed the various Atomic Safety and Licensing Boards conducting hearings on the applications to put in abeyance any new filings regarding waste confidence until the Commission gives further guidance on how to proceed. This ruling also applied to several motions to reopen and new petitions pending before the Commission.

Finally, the Commission gave its assurance that the public will be able to participate in the process as the agency moves forward on waste confidence. “The public will be afforded an opportunity to comment in advance on any generic waste confidence document that the NRC issues on remand – be it a fresh rule, a policy statement, an [Environmental Assessment] or an [Environmental Impact Statement],” they said.

So everyone take a deep breath. Now we wait for the Commission to decide on a course of action to satisfy the Appeals Court’s ruling.

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

19 responses to “Deciphering the Waste Confidence Order

  1. DensityDuck August 17, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    How is that the NRC can be required to “analyze the environmental consequences of never building a permanent waste repository” when it was not the NRC’s decision that a permanent waste repository would never be built?

  2. nuceng August 16, 2012 at 9:17 am

    While this blog post is somewhat helpful in interpreting the Commission’s Order, it is still ambiguous with regard to one key issue: What, precisely, are “licenses dependent upon [waste confidence]“? Obviously, Part 50 operating licenses, Part 52 COLs, and Part 54 license renewals fall into that category, and non-reactor licenses do not, but how about Early Site Permits? An ESP does not allow anything to be built or operated; it is limited to a determination of the capability of a site to host a niuclear plant. Or a Limited Work Authorization? An LWA allows some construction activities to go forward, but not the construction of an entire plant. Or a Part 50 Construction Permit? A CP allows construction of a complete plant, but not its operation–and thus, not the generation of spent fuel. On the other end of the spectrum, while the new Vogtle and Summer units have their operating licenses as part of their COLs, they cannot load fuel and begin operating until the Commission makes its required fnding on the completion of ITAAC. That’s not a license, but if those plants reach that stage before the NRC gets the waste confidence issue resolved, will “waste confidence” figure into that determination? A little more clarity in this regard would be useful.

  3. Zach August 15, 2012 at 11:20 am

    When could the utilities expect to see the NRC to pay back the billions of dollars they have paid to the NRC for a future waste disposal site? They were promised Yucca and didn’t get that. In the country we live in the government should not be allowed to take someone’s money, promise them something, and then back out on the deal. Our country was not pictured to run this way and the government should hold itself to a higher standard. Will Obama step in and do something? Obama first approves two new sites for construction, and now he has appointed a woman who is hugely against Yucca, but they still take their money don’t they?

  4. Carlyn Greene August 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    Does this decision affect power uprates? There are a few reactors that the uprate decision was expected this year. Thank you.

    • Moderator August 14, 2012 at 10:15 am

      No, it does not affect power uprates.

      • CaptD August 14, 2012 at 12:39 pm

        It should affect all reactors, since “Power Uprates” is exactly what caused the ongoing SORE (San Onofre Reactor Emergency) debacle!

      • nuclear guy August 15, 2012 at 9:58 am

        This is a reply to CaptD.

        SONGS did not do a power uprate. There was no change on the licensed thermal power of their reactor. They were attempting to improve efficiency, as well as address aging concerns on their steam generators. Neither of these things allows the increase of reactor power past their operating license limit.

  5. CaptD August 10, 2012 at 11:52 am

    It would be factual (think honest) if the moderator(s) posted the number of comments submitted sv. the number posted and give reason for those that have not be published; to do otherwise makes it look like the NRC is “cherry picking” comments for publication, which should be illegal since they say they encourage public input…

    • Moderator August 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm

      Since the blog’s creation in January 2011, there have been only a very small number of comments that have not met the comment guidelines and thus have not been approved for posting. If you are not seeing a comment you have submitted, please check the Open Forum section. Comments that are unrelated to the topic of the post under which they are originally submitted may be moved there by the moderator.

  6. CaptD August 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    The Commission RULES, except in the Courts…

    Time for the Commission to re-examine the entire “process”, (including its role) and then follow those steps with public involvement to achieve a SAFE Energy policy, the USA cannot finance a Trillion Dollar Eco-Disaster like Fukushima.

    • David Phillips August 13, 2012 at 7:56 pm

      Yes, the US cannot finance a magnitude 9 earthquake or the ocean floor conditions that led to the 45 foot wall of water. You are quite correct in that. Most of the cost has come from excessive caution not from real safety issues. IE. People really being injured or dying. Evacuating people in the face of radiation that is fairly minor, continuing to keep them from their homes after the radiation has faded, keeping unaffected plants shut down and buying replacement power from fossil fuels. These are the major reasons for costs. But, your numbers are still exaggerated and have no basis in fact.

    • Zach August 15, 2012 at 11:24 am

      How in tune are you with the Fukishima debacle? You do know that the plant at Fukishma new well in advance that they needed to raise their tsunami walls but didn’t? You do realize that things were pointed out, and if they would have listened the fukishima disaster never would have happened……

      However, the tsunami would have. You can’t keep nature from taking it’s course. But when a regulatory group advises that you change, or update certain things, it’s in your best interest to do so. Luckily here in the US we have no choice but to follow the advice the NRC gives. Do a little research.

  7. Carlyn Greene August 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    First you say that the decision is “enormous” then you go on to explain that the Commission did not issue a “full stop” to license reviews, implying that the decision really isn’t all that “enormous.” I think your term “enormous” was somewhat inflammatory since the Commission voted to have the license reviews continue, and that other than Indian Point 2, most license renewal decisions are several years away anyway. The implication in your post and in the Order is that the Commission is working to address the court’s concerns expeditioiusly. Furthermore, as long as a licensee submitted its license renewal application in a timely manner, the reactor can continue to operate past the license renewal period while agency action is pending, correct? So the main thing this decision will impact is the potential issuance of COLs.

    Also, the staff is already working on studying the effects of storing spent fuel at the reactor site for up to 300 years as part of the EST Regulatory Program. Could the timeline for this be accelerated in light of this decision?

    • nuclear guy August 10, 2012 at 10:35 pm

      what is the EST regulatory program? Can you provide a link, i’m curious

      • Moderator August 13, 2012 at 10:43 am

        Yes – NRC regulations at 10 CFR 2.109(b) state:

        If the licensee of a nuclear power plant licensed under 10 CFR 50.21(b) or 50.22 files a sufficient application for renewal of either an operating license or a combined license at least 5 years before the expiration of the existing license, the existing license will not be deemed to have expired until the application has been finally determined.

        Since the Commission’s August 7 Order only suspends final licensing decisions but does not end the license review process, “timely renewal” would apply to the license renewal applications and the plants would be allowed to continue operating until a final determination is made on the application.

        You are also correct that the staff is in the very early stages of preparing an environmental impact statement looking at the effects of extended storage of spent nuclear fuel out to 300 years – something the Commission directed at the time of the 2010 Waste Confidence update. The staff is looking at how this work could be used to jump-start any effort on a generic response to the Court’s remand.

  8. Brian Fraser August 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    There are processes that have been known for at least half a century that can either outright destroy the radioactivity in high-level wastes (SNF), or convert the waste into valuable (and safe) elements. None of these have been commercialized. This could be one heck of a commercial opportunity for somebody with “the right stuff”. But more research is needed. Even so, that should eventually prove to be much cheaper than the alternatives.

    Imagine SNF becoming a valuable resource instead of a hazard that can poison the entire planet for thousands of years!

    If the NRC is “now considering all available options for resolving the waste confidence issue”, it needs to change its thinking from “storage of SNF” to “utilization of converted SNF”. Take the poop and turn it into fertilizer. Encourage research in this area!

    And be sure to read “Adventures in Energy Destruction” at : http://scripturalphysics.org/qm/adven.html
    and

    http://scripturalphysics.org/4v4a/YourKidCanDestroyNuclearWaste.pps

  9. Charles Bell August 9, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Thanks

  10. George Rudolph (@thenewnarrative) August 9, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    George Rudolph ‏@thenewnarrative
    NRC should stop mincing words-Not issuing final licensing is not issuing permits. The war on energy continues.

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