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Category Archives: Radioactive Waste

NRC’s Materials and Waste Management Programs Coming Back Under One Roof

Chris Miller
Merge Coordinator and Director of Intergovernmental Liaison and Rulemaking

 

When Congress created the NRC in 1974, it established three specific offices within the agency. One of them was the Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, or “NMSS” in NRC shorthand. This office was charged with regulating nuclear materials and the facilities associated with processing, transporting and handling them.

fuelcyclediagramThis charge was, and is, broad. The NRC’s materials and waste management programs cover facilities that use radioisotopes to diagnose and treat illnesses; devices such as radiography cameras and nuclear gauges; and decommissioning and environmental remediation. It also includes nuclear waste disposal and all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium recovery to enrichment to fuel manufacture to spent fuel storage and transportation.

And there’s more. The program also does environmental reviews and oversees 37 Agreement States, which have assumed regulatory authority over nuclear materials, and maintains relationships with states, local governments, federal agencies and Native American Tribal organizations.

As with all organizations, the NRC’s workload has ebbed and flowed in response to a multitude of factors. Over the years, NMSS went through several structural changes to address its workload changes. In 2006, NMSS was gearing up for an increase in licensing activity related to the processing, storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. At the same time, the Agreement State program was growing, requiring additional coordination with the states—a function then housed in a separate Office of State and Tribal Programs.

To meet these changes and ensure effectiveness, the NRC restructured NMSS. Some of its programs were moved, including the state and tribal programs, into the new Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs (FSME). NMSS retained fuel cycle facilities, high-level waste disposal, spent fuel storage, and radioactive material transportation. FSME was responsible for regulating industrial, commercial, and medical uses of radioactive materials and uranium recovery activities. It also handled the decommissioning of previously operating nuclear facilities and power plants.

The NRC’s materials and waste management workload has now shifted again. At the same time, the agency is exploring ways to reduce overhead costs and improve the ratio of staff to management.

So, NRC staff launched a working group last fall to review the organizational structure of the NRC’s materials and waste management programs. With the focus shifting to long-term waste storage and disposal strategies, and an increasing number of nuclear plants moving to decommissioning, the group recommended merging FSME’s programs back into NMSS.

NRC’s Commissioners approved that proposal last week, and the merger of the two offices will be effective October 5. We think this new structure will better enable us to meet future challenges. It will improve internal coordination, balance our workload and provide greater flexibility to respond to a dynamic environment.

Current work, functions and responsibilities at the staff level will be largely unchanged. The management structure will realign into fewer divisions, with fewer managers.

In their direction to the staff, the Commissioners asked for careful monitoring of the changes and a full review after one year. We fully expect these changes to improve our communications both inside and outside of the agency, and provide for greater efficiency and flexibility going forward.

Waste Confidence Final Rule Now Before the Commission

Andy Imboden
Communications Branch Chief
Waste Confidence Directorate

 

After thousands of public comments, dozens of meetings and hundreds of written pages, the NRC Commissioners are now deliberating the draft final rule and draft generic environmental impact statement on the continued storage of spent nuclear fuel – what used to be called “waste confidence.”

Under NRC procedures, and in support of our agency’s transparency and openness goals, we are making three documents including the draft final rule and environmental impact statement available – you can find them on the NRC’s waste confidence webpage:

  • A staff paper, SECY-14-0072: Final Rule: Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel;
  • A draft Federal Register notice on the final rule; and
  • A draft NUREG-2157: Generic Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel – Final Report (GEIS).

To be clear, the draft final rule and draft GEIS are not yet final and are not for public comment. NUREG-2157 includes a lengthy Appendix D that summarizes and responds to more than 33,000 written comments we received when the draft GEIS and proposed rule were published for comment last year. They are “draft final” documents because they need Commission approval before they become final agency action. The Commission may approve, modify, or disapprove them.

Some important points to remember: The final Continued Storage rule represents a generic finding on the environmental impacts of continued storage of spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed operating life of a reactor. It does not license or approve any storage facility or any nuclear power reactors. The facilities are licensed – or licenses are renewed – based on site-specific application reviews.

The rule is to be used as a part of the overall environmental review for new reactor license applications, current reactor renewal applications, and spent fuel storage facility license reviews in these site-specific proceedings. The GEIS serves as the regulatory basis for the rule, and does not replace the staff’s comprehensive environmental review in individual licensing proceedings.

The name change from “waste confidence” to “continued storage” is just one way the new rule differs from previous versions, including the 2010 version that was struck down by the D.C. Circuit U.S. Appeals Court. (That ruling two years ago prompted the current rulemaking effort.) The name change and other changes are in part due to public comment, and are further explained in the staff paper and the Federal Register notice. The latter also includes an extensive question-and-answer section about the staff’s review and conclusions.

Keeping Proper Track of Spent Fuel Pool Conditions

Lauren Gibson
Project Manager
Japan Lessons-Learned Directorate
 

While “spent fuel pool #4” at Fukushima Daiichi did keep its contents safe during the March 2011 accident, no one could confirm that during the accident. The plant’s staff and other experts, including the NRC, simply didn’t have enough information to know what was going on in the pool. Why not? There was no reliable way to measure the pool’s water level.

SFP_instrKnowing the water level is important because if the pool had boiled dry, it would have damaged the fuel and added to the accident’s radiation release. The Japanese plant’s staff did the right thing in assuming the worst and making many attempts to add water to the pool. They even dropped water from helicopters. If they had known the pools were OK, however, they would have been able to focus on addressing the real problem: the damaged reactors.

This experience led the NRC to order U.S. nuclear power plants to add instrumentation to their spent fuel pools. That way, if an accident occurs at a U.S. reactor, plant staff will be able to tell when the spent fuel pool needed attention. Spent fuel pool instrumentation will help plant staff properly prioritize their accident response and keep the public safe.

U.S. reactors already monitor a small fraction of the water level in the spent fuel pool. However, this system may not work if power is lost, as it was at Fukushima, and can’t provide advance warning of low water levels.

The NRC’s order requires U.S. reactors to be able to tell whether water is at or above certain important levels. The highest level means enough water is available for the normal cooling system to work. The second level marks the level of water needed to protect someone standing next to the pool from the fuel’s radiation. The lowest level is still enough to cover the fuel, but the plant staff should begin adding more water to the pool.

Of course, water may be added—and most likely would be—prior to reaching this point. The order also requires that plant staff must be able to read these levels from somewhere away from the pool, such as in the control room.

U.S. reactors must install the new instruments no later than two refueling cycles after they submit their plan to the NRC or by the end of 2016, whichever comes first. All U.S. plants submitted their instrumentation plans in February 2013. We’ve been reviewing the plans and we recently issued interim staff evaluations. These documents give the plants feedback so they can continue on the right track for implementing the order.

The evaluations also ask plants for additional information we need to complete our review. While the agency’s final approval is yet to come, the interim evaluations give plants the confidence to order equipment and move forward with installing the instruments. We’ll provide the plants a final staff evaluation when we can conclude that they’ll comply with the order by the deadline by following their plan. We’ll continue inspecting plants to confirm they’ve finished complying with the order.

Our website’s Japan Lessons Learned section has a page with more information about the order and related guidance.

We’re Waiting To Hear — Your Comments are Due on Waste Confidence

Keith McConnell
Director, Waste Confidence Directorate
 

The public comment period on the Waste Confidence proposed rule and generic environmental impact statement (GEIS) ends December 20. During the 98-day public comment period (the end date was extended due to the government shutdown), the NRC staff conducted 13 meetings around the country to receive your feedback.

wcd_banner_smallWe’d like to thank the more than 1,400 people who attended these meetings, either in person or by teleconference. We have posted transcripts of the public meetings on the Public Involvement section of our Waste Confidence webpage. We appreciate all of you who spoke at the meetings providing your thoughtful comments. The safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and the impact on the environment are critical issues in the country’s nuclear policy. We here at the NRC are committed to ensuring that spent fuel remains safely stored until a repository can be built for permanent disposal.

So what’s next? The staff of the Waste Confidence Directorate is busy cataloguing the tens of thousands of public comments we have received so far. You can read the comments we’ve processed already using ADAMS and http://www.regulations.gov/(search for Docket ID NRC-2012-0246). We are continuing to post comments, and of course we expect to receive additional comments up to the December 20 deadline. Instructions on how to submit comments are on the Public Involvement section of our Waste Confidence webpage.

Once the comments are fully catalogued, the staff will consider them and prepare responses to be included in the final GEIS and rule. These final versions will of course include any changes from the drafts stemming from the comments. We are working to issue the final rule and environmental study later in 2014.

Commission Sets Path Forward on Yucca Mountain

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer
 

The Commission today directed the NRC staff to finish the safety evaluation report (SER) for the Department of Energy’s Yucca Mountain construction authorization application. This direction is the agency’s response to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which in August ordered us to resume work on the application using approximately $11 million in unspent money from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

yucca 2The Commission reached this decision after obtaining views from numerous parties involved in the licensing process as to how it should proceed.

By way of background, Yucca Mountain is the proposed repository for spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste, a site selected by DOE at the direction of Congress. DOE submitted its license application in June 2008, but two years later withdrew it after the Obama administration decided not to pursue the project.

The NRC closed out its unfinished review of the Yucca Mountain application during Fiscal Year 2011. But a lot has happened since then, so it’s important to clarify what today’s action does and does not do.

The Order issued by the Commission today DOES:

• Direct the staff to complete and issue the SER left incomplete when the Yucca Mountain review was closed out;

• Direct the NRC Secretary and other agency staff to enter thousands of documents from the old Licensing Support Network (LSN) into the NRC’s ADAMS documents database so they will be available to the staff and eventually, assuming the availability of funding, to the public;

• Ask the Department of Energy to complete a supplement to its environmental impact statement on Yucca Mountain as the NRC staff found to be necessary back in 2008.

The Order DOES NOT:

• Direct the staff to reconstitute the LSN, which was dismantled in FY 2011;

• Restart the adjudicatory hearing on the application, which remains suspended;

• Signal that a licensing decision is imminent. Before a final licensing decision can be made, the adjudicatory hearing must be completed, and the Commission must perform its own review.

The Commission said it would consider the future of the LSN and the adjudicatory hearing once the tasks it directed today are completed and it can determine what tasks it can perform with whatever funds remain. The agency can only use money Congress has appropriated from the Nuclear Waste Fund for activities related to Yucca Mountain.

The SER is the key technical document of the NRC’s review of the Yucca Mountain application. It was to be published in five volumes: Volume 1, essentially the introduction, was published in August 2010. Subsequent volumes were not completed before the review was shut down – they were eventually published as “technical evaluation reports,” which are less formal documents that don’t contain regulatory conclusions about the proposed repository.

Although a finished SER would contain those conclusions, it will not be equivalent to a licensing decision, as discussed above.

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