A Level of Confidence

The Commission’s recent update to the Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, published December 23 in the Federal Register, has been in the news lately. Many of the reports have misstated or misunderstood the meaning of the update and how it affects nuclear power plants. This post will provide a short history of Waste Confidence, a summary of the changes and a brief response to some of the most common misconceptions.

Waste Confidence generally refers to two documents: the Waste Confidence Decision and a corresponding Rule. The Decision provides the basis for the Rule and includes a number of generic safety and environmental findings. The Rule is a generic finding by the NRC that there will not be significant environmental impacts from storing spent fuel after a nuclear power plant’s operating license expires. (The term “generic” here means that it is not site specific.)

Waste Confidence stems from two federal court cases that set out the NRC’s obligations for safely storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level waste under the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The AEA requires the NRC to establish standards governing the civilian use of nuclear material and facilities; NEPA directs federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of major federal actions, such as licensing a nuclear power plant.

The 1984 Waste Confidence Decision included five findings that evaluated the technical feasibility of a repository and the long-term safety and feasibility of storing spent fuel. These findings satisfied the decisions in the cases mentioned above and formed the basis for the Waste Confidence Rule.

The Waste Confidence Decision and Rule have been amended twice since 1984. The most recent revision removed a date when a repository would be expected to be available for long-term disposal of spent fuel and evaluated the environmental effects of “at least 60 years” of spent fuel storage after the end of a reactor’s license.

A common misconception is that the update authorizes the continued licensing of nuclear power plants and the long-term storage of spent fuel. Rather, the update looks at only a small part of the NEPA analysis that needs to be completed before the Commission can decide on an application for a new nuclear power plant or spent fuel storage facility. Any licensing decision issued by the Commission must be based on a comprehensive NEPA analysis, and the update alone is not sufficient to meet this obligation.

Another common misconception is that the NRC has approved extended storage of spent fuel at reactor sites for the next 100 years or so. The update says the NRC has made a generic finding that the spent fuel can be stored safely for at least 60 years, if necessary. This generic finding is needed to respond to the NRC’s legal obligations under the AEA and NEPA and does not make any site-specific findings or authorize storage at any specific location. Individual sites would still need to apply for approval to construct and operate storage facilities.

I hope that this helps provide some background on the Waste Confidence update and its history. I look forward to responding to your comments and questions on this complicated issue.

Tison Campbell
NRC Attorney