Let’s Chat about Waste Confidence

Andy Imboden
Chief of the Communications, Planning, and Rulemaking Branch
Waste Confidence Directorate

Update: My name is Keith McConnell and I am the Director of the Waste Confidence Directorate. Unfortunately, Andy Imboden, who was scheduled to moderate today’s Chat, can’t be here so I’ll be answering your questions.

I have been at the NRC since 1986, bringing my background and expertise as a geologist to various projects, including waste management, decommissioning and uranium recovery, as well as other positions. I have also served three NRC chairmen and in the Office of General Counsel.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from Clemson, a Master’s in Geological Sciences from Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. in Geological Sciences from the University of South Carolina.

Also, we’ve just posted a new YouTube Video — NRC Q&As Series: Three Minutes with Waste Confidence Directorate. Please give it a look.


On June 8, 2012, a U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule. That rule contained the NRC’s determination that the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel after the end of a nuclear power plant’s license are not significant. The Waste Confidence ruling affected commercial nuclear power plant license reviews and spent-fuel storage reviews.

Picture2Tomorrow, from 2 to 3 p.m. EDT, I’ll respond to your questions during a Chat about NRC’s ongoing efforts to develop an updated Waste Confidence Rule. As you can imagine, many policy, legal, and technical issues will affect the rule.

By way of background, the Department of Energy is the federal agency with responsibility for the final disposal of the spent fuel in a deep geologic repository; the NRC’s role is to evaluate the application submitted to license the construction and operation of a repository. What the NRC is addressing currently (and in the Chat tomorrow) is how we’ll address the environmental impacts of the spent fuel after the nuclear power plant that generated it has stopped operating, but before it’s moved to permanent disposal elsewhere.

In the coming months, the NRC will release both a proposed new Waste Confidence rule and a draft generic environmental impact statement for public review and comment. But before we have that official comment period, I’m looking forward to answering your questions about proposed Waste Confidence Rule and the draft generic environmental impact statement. We want you to have as much chatdropquoteinformation as possible so you can fully participate in the official comment process.

Prior to our Chat, you can visit NRC’s Waste Confidence website for more information.

If you have any questions before tomorrow’s Chat, you can submit them to OPA.Resource@nrc.gov. I’m looking forward to your questions and comments. Just one note, though, this Chat is informal and your comments will not be included in our official comment process.

I look forward to hearing from you on July 23d.

Two Separate NRC Efforts Address Spent Fuel Safety

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

Today, the NRC is making publicly available four documents relating to the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel. The first three represent the agency’s work to date on revising its waste confidence rule and analyzing the environmental effects of extended spent fuel storage. The fourth is a draft study examining whether earlier transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage would significantly reduce risks to public health and safety.

Although both waste confidence and the spent fuel pool study discuss the safety of spent fuel, these are two separate efforts with distinct goals. So we wanted to explain the processes here on the blog to help avoid confusion.

dropquotedaveThe waste confidence documents represent a major milestone in the NRC’s effort to address last year’s U.S. Appeals Court decision striking down our waste confidence rule. The court directed the agency to analyze the environmental effects of never having a permanent repository for the nation’s commercial spent fuel, as well as the effects of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.

The three waste confidence documents being posted today on the NRC website are:

• A staff paper to the Commission (SECY-13-0061) recommending publication of a proposed rule and draft generic environmental impact statement, or GEIS, for public comment;

• A draft Federal Register notice containing the proposed rule and a “Statement of Considerations,” or preamble, that explains the rule, the conclusions in the GEIS that support the rule, and the changes in format that the NRC is recommending as part of this rulemaking (Enclosure1); and

• The draft generic environmental impact statement on the effects of continued storage of spent fuel (Enclosure 2); it serves as the regulatory basis for the proposed rule. A list of reference documents used in preparing the GEIS is also being posted on the NRC’s waste confidence webpage.

These documents are now before the Commission and are being made publicly available under standard agency procedure. The Commission may approve, modify or disapprove these documents, so we are not yet seeking public comments. We hope to publish them officially for comment in late August or early September, but that timeframe depends on Commission approval.

When they are published, the 75-day official public comment period will begin. During that period, we will hold 10 public meetings around the country to present the proposed rule and draft GEIS and receive your comments. Two of these meetings will be at NRC headquarters in Rockville, Md. The rest will be in New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, southern California, central California, Minnesota, Ohio, and North Carolina.

Details will be announced closer to the dates on the NRC’s public meetings webpage and the waste confidence webpage.

reportsThe spent fuel pool study is being published for public comment. A Federal Register notice to be published soon will set a 30-day deadline and explain how to submit comments.

The NRC began this study after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011. Although the spent fuel pools at Fukushima did not fail, the accident sparked debate in this country over whether it might be safer to transfer spent fuel from pools to dry cask storage sooner than is the norm.

The study considered a pool at a boiling-water reactor with Mark 1 containment (the type used at Fukushima and 23 U.S. reactors) and an earthquake several times stronger than the pool was designed to withstand. It examined both a “full” pool and one with less fuel and more space between the assemblies, with and without emergency procedures to add water to the pool in the unlikely event an earthquake causes the pool to drain.

The pool study and the waste confidence review are separate efforts. The draft GEIS does not explicitly reference the pool study, though the waste confidence staff worked closely with the staff preparing the pool study while developing relevant chapters of the draft GEIS. If a final version of the study is published before the final waste confidence GEIS, the staff will incorporate a reference to it in the final GEIS.

These four documents represent two distinct NRC efforts on one very important subject: the safe storage of spent fuel and its environmental impacts. We look forward to your comments on the draft spent fuel pool study now, and on the waste confidence proposed rule and draft environmental study in the fall.

When Problems Are a Sign of Success

Chris Allen
Project Manager
Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

Can a problem show that our regulatory system works? If you don’t think so, read on.

Two weeks ago, the NRC published an “information notice” about moisture causing problems for dry spent fuel storage casks. Information notices are one way the NRC communicates formally with licensees. We send these notices when we want all licensees to be aware of a particular problem found with just one or only a handful of licensed facilities or equipment so they can prevent similar problems.

Spent fuel dry casks
Spent fuel dry casks

The problem in this case centers on dry spent fuel storage casks that store used nuclear fuel after it’s been cooled for several years in spent fuel pools. The NRC reviews the designs of these casks to make sure they will safely cool the fuel and contain the radiation it emits.

In this case, two different sites using two different storage designs had unanticipated problems on the outside of the system caused by moisture. The structural integrity of the systems was never compromised and the radiation levels at both sites remained very low.

The first problem dates to 2007 at a facility in Idaho that stores spent fuel debris from the damaged Three Mile Island reactor. The system uses thick concrete for shielding and protection from earthquakes and other natural forces. The operator saw that cracks in the concrete—originally thought to be cosmetic and trivial—were spreading. The licensee’s evaluation found water had entered bolt holes on top of the casks, froze, thawed and cracked the concrete. The evaluation also identified repairs, ways to prevent more water from getting in and a program for monitoring cracking.

The second problem, at the Peach Bottom reactor site in Pennsylvania, was identified on October 11, 2010, when an alarm sounded. That alarm was designed to be an early warning that the helium inside might be leaking. On examination, the licensee found rust beneath a metal weather cover and moisture around the bolts holding the cask lid in place. An outer lid seal was leaking more helium than the NRC license allowed. An inner seal kept the spent fuel and radioactivity confined inside the cask.

From the time these issues were discovered, we made information available through licensee event reports, NRC inspection reports, letters and other communications with licensees. Our licensees and some trade publications that follow NRC activities closely knew of the issues.

The licensees talked with one another as well at industry-wide workshops and conferences. And our inspectors, who also talk with one another, always look for evidence that dry storage casks are in good condition.

So how does this mean the process worked?

Alarms like the one at Peach Bottom and follow-up evaluations like the one in Idaho are examples of the monitoring and periodic examinations that the NRC requires all cask users to perform. These provide warnings long before a problem could develop that might affect public health and safety or the environment. We also require periodic examinations of dry storage casks so any potential issues can be identified early.

The NRC stayed up-to-date as the licensees learned more about the cause of their problems, how to prevent such problems in the future, and how to fix the problems on their existing systems. In this case, the NRC took the extra step of issuing the information notice even though communication between the NRC and licensees as well as among licensees meant that, when the information notice came out last week, it was actually “old news.”

Ensuring the Safety of Spent Fuel in Storage

Mark Lombard
Director, Office of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation
Spent fuel dry casks
Spent fuel dry casks

While no one can say with certainty today where spent nuclear fuel will ultimately go for long-term storage or disposal, one thing is clear: the current methods of spent fuel storage are safe.

Managing the “back end” of the nuclear fuel cycle – what happens to the fuel after it is taken out of a reactor – may never be completely separated from political and economic considerations. But the technical challenges are fairly straightforward. Spent fuel is hot. And it is extremely radioactive. It must be kept cool and it must be shielded to protect workers, the public and the environment. It must also be properly controlled to prevent it from achieving a sustained nuclear chain reaction, also known as going critical.

The NRC has updated its Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel fact sheet, which explains the two major ways spent fuel is managed – in pools and in dry cask storage. The fact sheet explains the regulatory requirements, inspections and monitoring that ensure spent fuel is managed safely. It also details improvements the NRC has made to address concerns raised by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima plant and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

An NRC backgrounder, Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel, provides more detail on how this management strategy evolved, the basic requirements for dry storage, different licensing options and opportunities for public input.

A great deal more information on spent nuclear fuel storage is also available on the NRC’s website. We encourage you to read about our activities in this area and post your questions, comments and concerns below.

NRC’s Waste Confidence Scoping Report: What’s It All About?

Andy Imboden
Chief, Communications Branch, Waste Confidence Directorate

wcd_banner_smallThe NRC’s Waste Confidence Directorate has issued its scoping summary report  – based on the 1,700 comments we received on the question of what issues we’ll consider in the environmental review of the agency’s policy on long-term spent fuel storage. As you can imagine, there was tremendous public interest in this report.

The Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) and a related regulation will be the NRC’s response to last year’s U.S. Appeals Court ruling. That ruling directed the agency to analyze the environmental effects of never having a permanent repository for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel, as well as further analyses of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.

The scoping report does what its name implies – it defines the scope of the environmental review. The report lists comments and subject areas that will be covered in the GEIS (“in scope”) and explains why other subjects – such as defense waste, reprocessing facilities, and site-specific safety concerns – will not (“out of scope”).

This report also describes how the upcoming GEIS will be structured. We anticipate publishing the draft GEIS in September, with a series of public meetings across the country to present the draft and receive public comments.

During the scoping process, Waste Confidence Directorate staff reviewed some 700 comment submissions with 1,700 individual comments. Staff grouped and responded to the comments according to common concerns and issues. All comments, regardless of who submitted them or how they were submitted, received equal consideration. In addition to the summary report, the NRC has compiled and listed all 1,700 comments in a separate comment document.

The NRC is sending a copy of the scoping summary report to each person and organization who participated in the scoping process. The Waste Confidence Directorate holds monthly public teleconferences to discuss the status of the Waste Confidence GEIS and rulemaking.

There will be more opportunities for the public to participate and comment on waste confidence as the process goes on. The draft GEIS and proposed rule are scheduled to be issued later this year, and the NRC is planning to conduct regional public meetings to discuss these documents. Stay tuned for more details!

Waste Confidence Public Comment Period Ending Soon

MH900287136The NRC’s public comment period on the scope of an environmental impact statement for the waste confidence decision and rule ends January 2. The waste confidence decision and rule is related to the safety of spent fuel storage. So far, we have received more than 400 wide-ranging comments and suggestions on issues we should cover in this important document. Several more are anticipated before the deadline.

In addition to the hundreds of thoughtful comments on the scope of the environmental impact statement, we received much criticism on the scoping process itself, in particular with regard to the length of the scoping period, the January 2 deadline, how the notice was phrased, and whether the NRC was in compliance with its regulations. These concerns have been reviewed and considered by the NRC staff and the Commission. NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane also responded in a letter earlier this month to some of the overarching concerns that have been raised.

The Commission maintained the original 70-day formal comment period, as it provides in its judgment sufficient time for the public to develop thoughtful comments. This period is also consistent with, or longer than, most other comment periods for other NRC actions. The scoping notice was published on October 25, 2012, and the NRC has held four public meetings to date.

The NRC will take into consideration all of the comments received and develop a draft environmental impact statement and proposed rule by August 2013. The public will also have an opportunity to comment on these documents. We plan to hold a number of regional public meetings across the U.S. after their issuance.

For more information about the NRC’s ongoing efforts to develop a generic environmental impact statement to support a revised Waste Confidence Decision and Rule, please visit the NRC’s website. While there, you can also sign up for automatic updates.

Keith McConnell
Director, Waste Confidence Directorate

Introducing the NRC’s Waste Confidence Directorate

The NRC staff is already hard at work on an environmental impact statement to support an update to the Commission’s waste confidence rule, which evaluates the storage of spent nuclear fuel after the expiration of a nuclear reactor’s license.

This project is part of the NRC’s response to last June’s U.S. Appeals Court ruling striking down the agency’s generic finding that spent fuel can be stored safely for several decades after a plant’s license expires. The court held the NRC should have examined the environmental effects of never having a repository, as well as the effects of spent fuel pool fires and leaks. The Commission then decided that the agency would not issue licenses dependent on waste confidence until the court’s remand is addressed.

As director of the new Waste Confidence Directorate, established to meet the 24-month deadline the Commission set for this ambitious and important project, I plan to give you occasional updates on our progress here on the NRC blog. These updates will be part of an extensive and innovative public outreach effort.

I am happy to report that the Waste Confidence Directorate is now fully staffed. We are the newest part of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, which has oversight and licensing responsibilities for spent fuel storage and disposal. But we have drawn our staff from offices throughout the agency in order to utilize a variety of expertise and knowledge. I come to the Directorate from the Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs, which handles environmental reviews and rulemaking for fuel cycle facilities, decommissioning and waste. My deputy, Carrie Safford, comes from our Office of the General Counsel to provide legal expertise.

We will oversee two branches, with a total staff of 20 employees. The Environmental Review Branch includes many talented and experienced environmental experts with deep knowledge of the National Environmental Policy Act and its requirements. They will work with contractors from the Center for Nuclear Waste Regulatory Analyses in San Antonio, Texas, to develop the environmental impact statement.

Our Communications Branch will lead our public outreach effort. The NRC is committed to engaging the public to the maximum extent possible in this important project, and we will keep you informed every step of the way. We have already set up a dedicated Waste Confidence page on the NRC website (one click from our home page under “Spotlight”), where you will be able to find documents, meeting notices and transcripts, and regular updates on our work. You can also reach us directly by email at WCOutreach@nrc.gov.

This week, we announced in the Federal Register our “scoping” effort for the environmental review. We want the public’s suggestions on what we should examine in the environmental impact statement. To that end, we will hold two public meetings here at NRC headquarters on Wednesday, November 14 to explain the project and hear public comments. Both of these meetings will be webcast, with moderated teleconference lines, so people who cannot come to Rockville can still participate. The second meeting will be held late in the evening to accommodate people in other time zones. We will also conduct two webinars in early December to explain the review process and receive public comments. Finally, you may comment online through the government’s rulemaking website – regulations.gov, under docket number NRC-2012-0246. The comment period ends Wednesday, January 2, 2013.

With our dedicated Waste Confidence Web page, webcasts, webinars, this blog and the NRC’s Twitter feed and YouTube channel, we intend to keep you informed and engaged as we tackle this important project. We are confident that we can meet the September 2014 deadline for the environmental impact statement and waste confidence rule, and we look forward to working with you, our stakeholders, along the way.

Keith I. McConnell
Director, Waste Confidence Directorate
Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards