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

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

10 thoughts on “A Level of Confidence”

  1. Mr. Skolbar, I Agree with you completely. Thank you for expressing yourself so well and asking your questions. It is a shame we have this guy as Chairman. He really is a liability waiting to happen. God forbid that we should have amjor incident, and expect him to lead the country through it.

  2. Thank you for your comment. We’ve passed your suggestion along to the team working on the possible long-term update to the WC decision and rule discussed in the Commission’s September 15 SRM (http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/commission/srm/meet/2010/m20100915.pdf). Please be aware that this suggestion will not be considered as a formal comment on the long-term update; nor will the staff catalogue, track, and respond to the comment. If a proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement are issued, the staff will accept and respond to comments as part of the process to develop a final rule and final environmental impact statement.

    Tison Campbell

  3. The Federal Register Notice for the Waste Confidence Rule provides a partial list of the documents the NRC relied on. The Notice for the Rule also references the Waste Confidence decision, which serves as the regulatory basis and Environmental Assessment for the Rule. The Federal Register Notice for the Waste Confidence Decision provides a comprehensive list of the documents that provide the basis for the Rule and Decision. Most of the documents referenced in the Decision and Rule can be found through ADAMS or on the NRC’s public website. Spent Fuel in this context includes intact fuel with defects (such as leakers), damaged fuel, and even fuel debris/ruble. Damaged fuel and fuel debris traditionally requires additional confinement and criticality safety controls during dry storage (such as canning of individual fuel assemblies). The NRC Standard Review plan for Dry Cask Storage System (NUREG-1536 Rev. 1) provides additional information on damaged fuel definitions and regulatory acceptance criteria for safe storage (see glossary and Section 8). Ref: http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/nuregs/staff/sr1536/r1/sr1536r1.pdf.

    Tison Campbell

  4. An FEIS that cannot, for whatever reason, rely on the generic finding of no significant impact in the Waste Confidence Rule could instead include a site-specific discussion of the post-licensed life storage of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste at that specific reactor. By including this analysis in the FEIS instead of relying on the generic finding in the WC rule the NRC would still satisfy its NEPA obligations.

    You’re correct that the 100 years of storage notion comes from the 40-year operating license term followed by the 60 years considered in the WC Decision and Rule; including a 20-year relicensing term would increase the maximum storage considered to about 120 years.

    Tison Campbell

  5. Many thanks to Tison Campbell, NRC staff attorney, for posting a summary of the Waste Confidence Decisions and Rule-makings, and also for providing the applicable Federal Register references. Part of Tison’s summary reads, “…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.” Isn’t the converse also true, that if an FEIS for a nuclear power plant could not rely on the generic Waste Confidence Decisions and rule-makings, then such an FEIS would be incomplete in that it could not address the spent fuel disposition and disposal issues. In such a case, it would seem that NRC would not be able to make the necessary environmental impact findings that would be needed to support the issuance of a reactor license.

    Shifting subjects, it seems that the “100 years” storage notion stems from the nominal 40-year operating license term, followed by 60 years of on-site storage. Considering a 20-year licensing extension extends the total storage time to about 120 years.

  6. Mr. Campbell, could you, with equal clarity, explain why Chairman’s Jazcko’s actions with respect to DOE’s Yucca Mountain License Application meets the NWPA? It seems to me that he has brought politics into the NRC in a big, big, possibly fatal way. How can the commissioner disrespect the ASLB and the NWPA in the manner he has…………with apparent impunity? Where is the justice here?

  7. Where would I be able to find (read) more information about what the NRC considered, (and what they did not), when they made a not-site-specific finding that the “spent fuel” can be stored safely for at least 60 years? For instance, is “spent fuel” only undamaged spent fuel or does it include leakers, or worse?

    Thank you,

    Tom Gurdziel

  8. The term “Waste Confidence” should be replaced by “High-Level Radioactive Waste Confidence” because HLW is what it’s about. Low-level radioactive waste, uranium recovery waste, and decommissioning waste are not covered by “Waste Confidence.” There is real disposal going on with these waste types. For them, “when necessary” is now. HLW disposal has always been something that is going to happen.

  9. Moderator Note: This unsigned comment was moved here from another post.

    The NRC’s most recent Waste Confidence Decision seemed to be wishful thinking in the light of the termination of Yucca Mountain licensing efforts. Today’s lawsuit filed in the DC Circuit by NY, VT, and CT reinforces my view on this matter. Text of the request for review follows:

    No. 11-_____ -ag
    Pursuant to § 189 of the Atomic Energy Act, 42 U.S.C.
    § 2239, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2341-2344; the Administrative Procedure Act,
    5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq.; and Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of
    Appellate Procedure, the petitioners, the State of New York, by its
    attorney, Eric T. Schneiderman, Attorney General of the State of
    New York; the State of Vermont, by its attorney, William H.
    Sorrell, Attorney General of the State of Vermont; and the State of
    Connecticut, by its attorney, George Jepsen, Attorney General of
    the State of Connecticut, hereby petition this Court for review of
    the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (“NRC”)
    Consideration of Environmental Impacts of Temporary Storage of
    Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation rule (“Temporary
    Storage Rule”) and affiliated Waste Confidence Decision Update,
    both issued December 23, 2010. See 75 Fed. Reg. 80132 (Dec. 23,
    2010); 75 Fed. Reg. 80137 (Dec. 23, 2010) (both attached to this
    petition). The NRC acted arbitrarily, abused its discretion, and
    violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the
    Administrative Procedure Act, the Atomic Energy Act, the
    Commission’s policies and regulations, the Council on
    Environmental Quality’s regulations, and other applicable laws
    and regulations in promulgating these rules and findings.
    The State of New York, jointly with the State of Vermont
    and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the State of
    Connecticut, through their respective Attorneys General,
    submitted extensive comments on both the draft Temporary
    Storage Rule and the draft Waste Confidence Decision Update in
    February 2009. The State of New York also submitted
    supplemental comments on February 9, 2010. As the NRC
    published notice of these rules in the Federal Register on
    December 23, 2010, this filing is within the Hobbs Act’s 60-day
    statute of limitations and is timely. 28 U.S.C. § 2344.
    Venue is appropriate within the D.C. Circuit pursuant to 28
    U.S.C. § 2343. Therefore, the States of New York, Vermont, and
    Connecticut respectfully request that this Court review the NRC’s
    Temporary Storage Rule and Waste Confidence Decision Update,
    vacate both, and remand the matter to the NRC for further
    analysis and the preparation and issuance of an environmental
    impact statement, and grant any other relief that the Court may
    deem just and appropriate.
    Dated: February 14, 2011
    New York, New York
    BY: ____/s_______________
    Assistant Solicitor General
    Assistant Attorneys General
    Office of the Attorney General
    For the State of New York
    120 Broadway
    New York, New York 10271
    Tel. (212) 416-6351
    monica.wagner@ag.ny.gov mailto:monica.wagner@ag.ny.gov
    BY: _____/s____________
    Assistant Attorneys General
    State of Vermont
    Office of the Attorney General
    109 State Street
    Montpelier, Vermont
    Tel. (802) 828-3186
    Email: tschwartz@atg.state.vt.us mailto:tschwartz@atg.state.vt.us
    BY: _____/s____________
    Assistant Attorney General
    55 Elm Street
    P.O. Box 120
    Hartford, CT 06106
    Tel. (860) 808-5020
    robert.snook@ct.gov mailto:robert.snook@ct.gov
    U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
    Consideration of Environmental Impacts of Temporary Storage of
    Spent Fuel After Cessation of Reactor Operation rule
    Waste Confidence Decision Update
    issued December 23, 2010
    75 Fed. Reg. 80132-37 (Dec. 23, 2010);
    75 Fed. Reg. 80137-76 (Dec. 23, 2010)

  10. Some additional information:

    The court cases that led to Waste Confidence are NRDC v. NRC, 582 F.2d 166 (2d Cir. 1978) and State of Minnesota v. NRC, 602 F.2d 412 (1979).

    The 1984 Waste Confidence Decision was published in the Federal Register at 49 Fed. Reg. 34658; August 31, 1984.

    Citations for the 1990 revision are 55 Fed. Reg. 38472 and 38474, September 18, 1990; the latest revision is 75 Fed. Reg. 81032 and 81037, December 23, 2010.

    Tison Campbell

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