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REFRESH — Let There Be Light

lightbulbMore than 60 years ago this month – though not related to the holiday season as far as we know — a string of bulbs lit up courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory. What was the significance? The electricity used to power the bulbs was generated by an experimental breeder reactor and was the first electricity produced using the heat of nuclear fission.

Photo from the Department of Energy

refresh leafREFRESH is an occasional series where we rerun previous posts. This first ran in December 2014. 

Yucca Mountain Documents Now Publicly Available – In a New Online Library

David McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

The NRC is flipping the switch today on its new LSN Library — making nearly 3.7 million documents related to the adjudicatory hearing on the proposed Yucca Mountain repository available to the public.

yuccatunnelThe library makes the discovery documents by various parties to the hearing public for the first time in five years, and with enhanced search capabilities. The new LSN Library is part of the NRC’s online documents database, known as ADAMS. Although the NRC staff’s discovery documents were already publicly available in ADAMS, those materials have been incorporated into the LSN Library to permit “one-stop” searching for Yucca-related technical information.

Here’s the genesis of the new library: The NRC created the Licensing Support Network, or LSN, back in 2001, years before the Department of Energy submitted its application in 2008 for construction authorization for a high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain. The network was designed to allow easy access to the volumes of discovery documents that would support various aspects of the hearing.

The LSN was a database that required participants to house their documents on their own servers that were accessible for “crawling” by LSN software maintained by the NRC. This software created a document index. Participants and the public could search the index and generate a link to relevant documents on the participants’ home servers.

The LSN worked smoothly through the early stages of the hearing. But then the Department of Energy shut down the Yucca Mountain Project in 2010, and the NRC staff proceeded with an “orderly closure” of its review of DOE’s license application. As part of the orderly closure, an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel’s Construction Authorization Board suspended the hearing in September 2011. The LSN was closed down the previous month, with the CAB directing the parties (other than the NRC staff, whose documents were already public in ADAMS) to provide all their LSN documents to the NRC’s Office of the Secretary.

Then in August 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the NRC to resume its review of DOE’s Yucca Mountain application, using previously appropriated money from the Nuclear Waste Fund.

The Commission directed the staff to finish and publish its Safety Evaluation Report, the main technical review of the application. The staff published the final volumes in January 2015. Then the Commission directed the staff to prepare a supplement to DOE’s Environmental Impact Statement, covering certain groundwater issues that were not fully analyzed in the EIS. The staff issued the final supplement this past May.

Additionally, the Commission directed that if there was enough money remaining, the LSN documents should be made publicly available. As explained in a paper published August 12, that’s the work being completed now with activation of the LSN Library.

The library is significant for three reasons. First, it meets federal records requirements. Second, the library again provides public access to the previously-disclosed discovery materials should the Yucca Mountain adjudicatory hearing resume. Third, should the Yucca Mountain hearing not resume, the library will provide an important source of technical information for any future high-level waste repository licensing proceeding.

And of course, the library helps us meet the NRC’s goal of being an open and transparent regulator.

A Bit of NRC Myth Busting — Part II

Eric Stahl
Acting Public Affairs Officer

 Facebook1As we said in yesterday’s Part I, we’ve taken a few of the interesting comments we’ve received on our Facebook page and posed them to our experts for their take on the question, suggestion or assertion. Here are their responses.

One user had several ideas for dealing with spent fuel including “mixing it in glass” and then burying it “in ice in Antarctica” or “blasting the glass off to Venus or Mars.”

 Mixing spent fuel with glass, a process known as “vitrification,” is one method that has been tested to treat nuclear waste in several countries. The idea supposes that mixing radioactive waste with other materials will create a more stable solution that won’t degrade over time.

??????In the U.S., over 50 million gallons of liquid waste from plutonium production at the Hanford site in Washington State will be vitrified and then stored onsite. DOE, who is responsible for oversight at Hanford, expects radioactivity levels in the material to greatly reduce in the future. If the country’s nuclear waste disposal policy was to turn toward vitrification, an application would need to come from the Department of Energy to the NRC. The NRC would be responsible for regulation.

However, burying vitrified spent fuel in Antarctica isn’t an option. Article V of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which the U.S. signed, prohibits the disposal of nuclear waste in Antarctica.

PrintSending vitrified spent fuel into space would be a risky and prohibitively expensive idea. According to NASA, it costs approximately $10,000 per pound to send things into orbit. Considering there’s currently more than 70,000 tons of spent fuel in the United States, shooting it into space wouldn’t be cost effective. In addition, a catastrophic accident involving a spacecraft hauling nuclear waste into space could cause radioactive material to contaminate the environment.

In any event, U.S. policy for spent fuel disposal is to place it in a deep geologic repository. Until and unless Congress changes the law, that will remain the policy.

And, finally, there are multiple comments about the wisdom and benefit of new reactor designs, especially one using fissile uranium salt.

The NRC is working to ensure we have the expertise available to review future advanced reactors (such as molten salt or high-temperature gas designs). The NRC will determine if those future designs are acceptable for U.S. use, and we’re working with the Department of Energy to inform advanced reactor designers how the review process will work. The NRC’s role, though, is regulating new designs, not initiating them.

Preparing for Advanced Reactors

Deborah Jackson
Deputy Director
Division of Engineering Infrastructure and Advanced Reactors

Before a company gets down to the nuts and bolts of a reactor design, it has to consider the big picture of protecting the public. The NRC lays out this mandate through a combination of regulatory requirements and guidance. “General Design Criteria,” or GDC are a key part of the regulatory requirements. We’re at the point where public input will help us develop Advanced Reactor Design Criteria (ARDC) for tomorrow’s reactors.

The current criteria cover concepts such as protecting against severe natural events and putting multiple barriers between radioactive material and the environment. Designers and operators use that basis for designing, fabricating, building, testing, and operating a reactor’s safety-related equipment. Companies are now considering designs that depart from cooling reactors with water, so the NRC is moving towards properly adapting the GDC.

We’ve been working with the Department of Energy on this since 2013. Our initiative has examined where today’s GDC could apply to advanced designs, and where new or revised criteria make sense. A DOE report from late 2014 (parts one and two) laid out Advanced Reactor Design Criteria, which could fill the GDC role for non-light-water-cooled reactors.

The DOE set out both criteria independent of any specific technology, and specific criteria for reactors cooled by liquid sodium or an inert gas. These ARDC will not be binding requirements.

The NRC picked up the ball by considering existing information on advanced designs, and we’ve asked DOE additional questions while developing draft regulatory guidance on the ARDC. This is the first step in strategically preparing for the review of non-light-water reactor applications.

The preliminary draft of the ARDC will provide stakeholder insight into the NRC staff’s current views on how the GDC could be interpreted to address non-light-water reactor design features. Ultimately, a risk-informed, performance based advanced non-light water reactor regulatory framework is envisioned.

A specific question we’re looking at involves whether NRCs generic criteria are broad enough to cover the spectrum of designs being considered. We’re also asking whether the proposed criteria appropriately address some new concepts described in DOE’s documents.

Public comments, which can also be sent to AdvancedRxDCComments.Resource@nrc.gov, will be accepted through June 8. After we address these initial public comments, a draft regulatory guide will be developed and published in the Federal Register for public comment.

REFRESH — Who Sets National Nuclear Energy Policy?


refresh leafWho decides if the U.S. is going to use nuclear energy to meet this country’s electric needs? It’s a question we get here at the NRC not infrequently. The short answer: Congress and the President. Together they make the nation’s laws and policies directing civilian nuclear activity – for both nuclear energy and nuclear materials used in science, academia, and industry.

Federal laws, like the Atomic Energy Act, set out our national nuclear policy. For example, in the Atomic Energy Act, Congress provided that the nation will “encourage widespread participation in the development and utilization of atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” Other federal laws, like the Energy Policy Act of 2005, call for the federal government to provide support of, research into, and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy. The President, as the head of the executive branch, is responsible for implementing these policies.

But sometimes, things get confusing as to who does what when it comes to putting these laws into practice! Although the NRC is a federal government agency with the word “nuclear” in its name, the NRC plays no role in making national nuclear policy. Instead, the NRC’s sole mission is to regulate civilian use of nuclear materials, ensuring that the public health, safety, and the environment are adequately protected.

The NRC’s absence from nuclear policymaking is no oversight, but a deliberate choice. Before there was an NRC, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was responsible for both developing and regulating nuclear activities. In 1974, Congress disbanded the AEC, and assigned all of the AEC’s responsibilities for developing and supporting nuclear activities to what is now the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). At the same time, Congress created the NRC as an independent regulatory agency, isolating it from executive branch direction and giving it just one task – regulating the safety of civilian nuclear activities.

Today, the DOE, under the direction of the President, supports federal research and development of nuclear technologies and nuclear energy in accordance with federal laws and policy goals. At the DOE, the Office of Nuclear Energy takes the lead on these programs.

Since its creation  four decades ago, the NRC’s only mission has been to regulate the safe civilian use of nuclear material. For that reason, the most important word here in the NRC’s name is not “Nuclear,” but “Regulatory.” Because the NRC has no stake in nuclear policymaking, the NRC can focus on its task of protecting public health and safety from radioactive hazards through regulation and enforcement.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous posts. This originally ran in August 2012.


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