NRC Licenses “Deconversion” Plant and Marks Several Firsts

When the NRC issued a license today to International Isotopes Fluorine Products (IIFP) to build and operate a deconversion plant in New Mexico, it marked several “firsts” for the agency.

Most importantly, it was the first time the NRC licensed a “deconversion” facility, which processes depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) left over from enriching uranium to make nuclear fuel. (DUF6 is a corrosive chemical that can, if exposed to moisture, form highly poisonous hydrogen fluoride gas. Deconversion turns the DUF6 into more chemically-stable, uranium oxide compounds. These compounds are better suited than DUF6 for disposal in a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility.)

Also, this is the first DUF6 deconversion plant to extract and market fluoride in the U.S. The NRC license allows IIFP to extract high-purity fluoride compounds from the DUF6. The company then plans to sell the fluoride compounds on the commercial market where they can be used to make refrigerants, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, high-octane gasoline, aluminum, plastics, electrical components and fluorescent light bulbs. Extracting the fluoride atoms from DUF6 and replacing them with oxygen also significantly reduces the material’s chemical hazards.

And this is the first new DUF6 licensee to have an Integrated Safety Analysis. The NRC recently began requiring new facilities that handle large quantities of natural or depleted UF6, such as the IIFP plant, to develop Integrated Safety Analyses. This type of analysis identifies potential accidents that could affect the safety of the nuclear materials at a site. The analysis also identifies systems, procedures, and other controls to prevent or mitigate each accident.

For more information on IIFP’s application, the licensing process, or the deconversion process, see the NRC’s website.

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

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

The Challenge of Decommissioning a One-of-a-Kind Reactor

The spent fuel cask will be moved from the dome-shaped reactor building using a heavy-duty overhead crane. A special “crawler” vehicle (not pictured) will move the fuel cask to a secure storage pad.

Correction: Allis-Chalmers build three reactors – Elk River (operated 1964-68), PathFinder (never achieved full power) and La Crosse (operated 1967-1987). They were all designed as commercial nuclear plants but La Crosse was the only one that operated for a significant amount of time.

Early nuclear power plants in the United States were custom designs, but the LaCrosse Boiling Water Reactor in Wisconsin was truly unique in both its design and construction. That uniqueness has carried over into the work to decommission and dismantle the plant.

Owned by the Dairyland Power Cooperative, the facility on the Mississippi River near Genoa, Wisconsin, is very small — producing just 50 megawatts of electricity — compared to 1,000 or more megawatts from later reactor designs. It was one of several demonstration reactors funded, in part, by the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the NRC. The plant was completed in 1967 and operated until April 1987. It was the only reactor built by Allis Chalmers, a company best known until the mid-1980s for its tractors and farm equipment.

In the 25 years since the plant was shut down, the NRC has monitored and inspected activities at the plant to assure continued protection of public safety and the environment. NRC requirements have also remained in place to maintain security at the facility.

Since shutdown, the plant has been maintained in a safe and secure condition until the plant can be fully decommissioned. In 2007 the 310-ton reactor vessel was removed from the plant and shipped to South Carolina for permanent disposal.

Spent fuel from the reactor’s 20 years of operation has been safely housed in the plant’s spent fuel storage pool. The Dairyland Power Cooperative has been developing plans over the past several years to transfer that fuel into five concrete and steel storage casks for interim storage on a specially constructed concrete pad at the site. Similar dry cask storage systems are in use at about 65 sites across the country.

Moving that fuel, however, has posed special challenges for this unique facility. The pool holding the spent fuel is too small to accommodate the cask used to load and transfer the spent fuel. Faced with the lack of space in the spent fuel pool itself, LaCrosse engineers devised a unique solution of converting the structure that formerly housed the reactor into a cask loading pool. The former reactor structure, which adjoins the spent fuel storage pool, will be filled with water for the cask loading. Once the cask is loaded, the loading pool will be drained and a gateway opened. A heavy-load overhead crane will move the cask outside the loading area.

Throughout the process, NRC engineers and inspectors have evaluated each step, including review of the construction of the storage pad and modifications to form the cask loading pool. All activities are assessed to assure that the unique concepts can be safely implemented for workers, the public, and the environment.

Before actually loading and moving the spent fuel, plant personnel are performing “dry runs” without actually loading the fuel assemblies to assure that the cask loading and transport equipment and procedures are ready for safe movement of the fuel. NRC inspectors have been on site to inspect these “dry run” activities.

The actual fuel movements will begin later this summer and NRC inspectors will be on hand to inspect the loading and movement of at least the first of the five casks.

Christine Lipa, Chief
Materials Control, ISFSI and Decommissioning Branch
Region III

Preparing the NRC for America’s Nuclear Future

Last month, the NRC’s five-member Commission heard from retired General Brent Scrowcroft, and others, who briefed them on what the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future might mean for the agency.

In January, the Blue Ribbon Commission, or BRC, co-chaired by General Scrowcroft and former Representative Lee Hamilton, issued comprehensive recommendations to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on how the nation could handle nuclear waste.

As requested by the President, the BRC’s recommendations present a long-term strategy for managing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. Many of these proposals will require specific actions by the NRC.

At the April meeting at the NRC, General Scrowcroft presented BRC’s key recommendations, highlighting those where NRC has an important role to play. He emphasized the essential need for “clearly independent, competent regulators,” recommending that existing roles of NRC and the Environmental Protection Agency be preserved and encouraging continued cooperation and coordination between the two agencies.

The BRC also concluded that deep geologic disposal remains the scientifically preferred approach and recommended that EPA and NRC develop new generic standards and supporting regulations for repository disposal early in the siting process. BRC also recommended efforts to develop one or more consolidated spent fuel storage facilities.

As part of the NRC staff briefing that followed the BRC’s presentation, Alicia Mullins of NRC’s Spent Fuel Alternative Strategy Division (SFAS) explained that NRC staff members actively engaged with the BRC throughout its deliberations. Mullins noted that NRC has experience in licensing facilities that are owned by a range of public-to-private entities, such as the new Waste Management Organization the BRC suggested to focus on storage and disposal of spent fuel and high-level waste. Such an organization would likely be a new NRC licensee and would need to establish an institutional framework to maintain safety and security throughout its operational lifetime.

Dr. Brittain Hill, also from SFAS, noted that many of the BRC recommendations have direct implications for NRC. For example, NRC deferred revising generic regulations for geologic disposal when the specific regulations for a repository at Yucca Mountain were developed in the late 1990s. Having those regulations in place before selecting a repository site will help build public consensus, the BRC said. A broad range of information from Yucca Mountain and international repository programs is available to help develop a risk-informed, performance-based regulation that would be appropriately protective at any potential site.

Earl Easton, of NRC’s Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation (SFST), discussed the BRC’s recommendations on transportation and the need to begin preparations for large-scale shipping campaigns of spent fuel to either an interim storage or geologic disposal facility. NRC’s primary role in these transportation planning activities has been on package certification and security arrangements for NRC-licensed shipments.

According to Easton, no significant changes to NRC’s regulatory programs are expected to result from BRC’s recommendation to begin planning efforts for potential large shipping campaigns. For many years, NRC has actively participated in state regional groups that have been set up to accomplish successful transportation planning. Easton explained that NRC’s outreach activities would naturally increase if future large-scale transportation campaigns are conducted by NRC licensees, instead of DOE.

BRC also recommended that NRC reassess its plans for the Package Performance Study, a full-scale test of a cask designed to transport spent fuel. For now, Easton said, the NRC staff prefers to wait until a clear direction emerges on whether to use a standardized shipping system before it commits to a full-scale test.

Janet Kotra
Senior Program Manager
Office of Nuclear Material Safety & Safeguards

NRC Gives Even Sensitive Matters a Full Legal (If Not Public) Hearing

The NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board plays a very important part in the agency’s consideration of requests for licenses to build and operate new facilities. The Board’s administrative law judges conduct independent hearings to consider arguments over whether the applications and the NRC’s reviews meet regulatory standards and comply with laws such as the Atomic Energy Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The judges then issue legally binding decisions on these matters.

Three Board judges held an evidentiary hearing last week to consider arguments by three citizens groups regarding a facility now under construction at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site. The NRC issued the U.S. Dept of Energy a permit, through the department’s Shaw Areva MOX Services contractor, to build the facility in order to convert plutonium from former nuclear warheads into mixed plutonium and uranium fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. The facility is being built as part of a US-Russian treaty to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in each country.

The citizen groups argue the facility cannot comply with NRC regulations to control and account for nuclear material. They say that the facility cannot track the plutonium going into the fuel accurately enough to properly account for it, and, therefore, some plutonium could be subject to diversion.

These arguments touch on very important requirements, but at the same time the arguments involve documents and live testimony on very sensitive information. Federal law and regulations require the Board and all the participants in the hearing to protect that information, so the Board held this hearing behind closed doors.

One of the citizens groups, Nuclear Watch South, was present at the hearing and all the groups participated fully through their lawyer and their expert witness. The three-judge panel expects to issue its decision in this case by the end of June.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

The NRC: A View from a Summer Intern

After graduating from Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in Spring 2011, I was fortunate enough to be hired as a summer intern at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. My experience at the NRC so far has been everything I was hoping for and more.

I was given a technical project to develop a computer model that would benefit the NRC staff members in their future safety reviews. The model takes spent fuel data as input and gives the transient thermodynamic heat load seen in a spent fuel pool as an output. I will continue to work on this project next year while I pursue a master’s degree, because I am involved in a joint university-NRC sponsorship program. This will effectively combine oversight of my college professors with my NRC mentors.

In addition, I have been working with various staff members in my branch, the Systems Balance of Plant Branch in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, on different research items and reviews of spent fuel pool equipment. I also took several training courses this summer that ranged from what the NRC does to the engineering concepts behind nuclear reactors. Through all of this, I have been able to apply what I learned in both training courses, as well as my college courses, to real scenarios in the NRC.

Working with the NRC put engineering into a different perspective for me. I always assumed engineering was focused on design, but seeing how engineering principles are applied to the regulation of nuclear power plants in order to ensure public safety introduced me to a whole new side. Because of this, I have shifted my career goals to the nuclear power and safety field. I hope that by the end of this summer, my completed work will add to the NRC’s mission of public safety, and further my engineering knowledge and skills.

Jerry Tyberghein
NRC Summer Hire Student

Safety and Sureties at Zion

North of Chicago, on the shores of Lake Michigan, one of the largest demolition and clean-up projects in the history of nuclear power is underway. The Zion two-unit nuclear power plant, which was shut down 14 years ago, is being decommissioned, and people have questions.

How can the public be assured that the job is done right? What will happen to the land after the cleanup is finished? What is the NRC’s role in the project?

The NRC’s role is focused: our job is nuclear safety and security. NRC safety rules govern nearly every aspect of the project, from the demolition of piping, buildings, and equipment, to the packaging and shipment of rubble. ZionSolutions, the licensee responsible for the project, must follow strict safety procedures and provide robust site security. Every step of the way, NRC inspectors will be onsite to independently review the work done at Zion to make sure that the public, workers and the environment are protected.

Protecting people and the environment during the Zion project will cost money, of course. So, NRC rules require that enough money be set aside to do it safely. About $900 million has been set aside for that purpose.

Some have asked whether the NRC has any role in deciding how leftover money would be spent if the project is completed for less. While other authorities might have something to say about such a decision, the NRC would not, because Congress has not given the NRC that role. Rather, the NRC’s focus is strictly on making sure that enough funds are in place to complete the job safely.

Once the job is done, the site will be suitable for whatever use the property owner chooses to make of it. The NRC will still have a role to play, though, because the radioactive spent fuel that accumulated during the years Zion was up and running will continue to be safely stored on a small portion of the property until a permanent disposal facility is ready.

Some people may not realize that spent fuel has been safely stored at Zion for years in a large, protective pool. That fuel will eventually be moved into NRC-approved dry storage casks on the Zion site. NRC experts will perform inspections of the fuel movement to make sure that it’s done safely. After that, NRC will continue to periodically inspect the safety and security of the storage casks for as long as they remain on site.

From the beginning of the Zion decommissioning project to the end, the NRC will be there to protect people and the environment.

Jared K. Heck
Regional Counsel & Government Liaison Team Leader