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

NRC’s Upcoming Regulatory Conference Expected to Draw 3,000 Attendees

Save the date RIC postcardThe NRC’s annual Regulatory Information Conference, known as the RIC, is coming up on March 8-10. This important conference is co-sponsored by the two NRC offices responsible for regulating nuclear reactors and overseeing research activities.

The conference provides a great opportunity for the NRC to discuss and share information on our regulatory, research and other activities in an informal environment. The RIC is the largest regulatory conference of its kind attracting participants from around the globe. This year we expect more than 3,000 attendees from as many as 30 countries.

This is our 23rd RIC and although some things are predictable, every conference is slightly different. This year we have 42 technical sessions and 29 technical poster and tabletop presentations that cover a wide range of topics related to operating reactors, new and advanced reactors, fuel cycle facilities, nuclear security, safety research, and safety culture.

Even at the NRC, not everyone realizes how early planning begins. More than 400 people are involved in making the RIC a success each year. Staff dedicated to the RIC start planning the next year’s conference the minute the last one ends. The NRC dedicates a lot of time and attention to this conference because it presents an invaluable opportunity to learn and share information and work together to ensure safe and secure regulation in the nuclear industry.

The conference is free and open to the public but you must register! Online registration is available on the RIC website until Feb 22. On-site registration will be available on March 7 from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Registration Service Desk on the hotel’s lower level. The Registration Service Desk also opens on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 a.m. and Thursday at 7:30 a.m.

Following the RIC you can access copies of presentations, speaker and panelist biographies, audio recordings of the technical sessions, and video copies of the plenary sessions through the NRC website.

Christine Steger
Communications Analyst (Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation)
Amy Bonaccorso
Senior Communications Specialist (Office of Research)

Are We Writing in Plain English?

Plain Language logoDoes the NRC use too much jargon? Is it hard to figure out what some of our publications are trying to say? Those aren’t rhetorical questions; we really want to know—preferably with some specific examples.

Writing in plain English is a long-standing goal of the NRC. But we are currently renewing our efforts to communicate clearly in response to a new law passed by Congress. Since many of our regulatory functions are highly technical, there will always be some NRC documents that use a lot of technical and scientific terminology. Congress recognizes this and directs agencies to “focus on documents Americans are most likely to encounter” and write “in a way that meets the needs of the intended audience.”

So we will be making an extra effort to use plain writing in the documents most often read by the general public, such as:

• Performance Assessments (For both reactors and fuel cycle facilities)

• Inspection Reports

• Environmental Impact Statements

• Significant Enforcement Actions

• Meeting Notices

If you have specific suggestions for items that are hard to understand, or that need to be written more plainly, please let us know in the comments to this post.

Glenn Ellmers
Communication Specialist

NRC- It’s Not the Nuclear Reactor Commission

radiation symbolBefore I came to NRC, I thought the agency was set up just to make sure that 100 or so U.S. reactors operated safely. While that remains one of the agency’s most important missions, there is so much more that we do. For example, the office in which I work regulates 3,000 users of radioactive material and oversees 37 states that regulate about 20,000 other users of this material.

Most people know about nuclear medicine, where radioactive materials are used in diagnosing and treating illness. But many may not know that radioactive materials are also used in devices such as the gauges that measure moisture density in highway construction or in analytical equipment that makes sure airplanes don’t have structural defects. Radioactive material is used in a number of different applications (commercial, academic, and medical) with a broad range of societal benefits.

In my office, we make sure the people who use the material do so in a safe and responsible manner, and that they have the material properly controlled to protect it from being stolen or lost. We also make sure our licensees – those we license to use radioactive materials — are aware of their environmental responsibilities and we work to ensure sites where these materials have been used are decommissioned properly.

Our regional staff of license reviewers and inspectors, and their counterparts in the states, work closely with the licensees and with other key stakeholders to monitor performance. We track when things go wrong, what we call “events,” and make decisions on what steps need to be taken based on the safety significance of those events.

We ask various parts of the industry if our regulations make sense and whether or not they are effective; but we also provide members of the public with similar opportunities to express their comments. We typically use the Federal Register to post these public comment notices, but you may see future blogs highlight this, too.

My office has a broad range of regulatory responsibilities. I look forward to highlighting some of our issues and challenges in future posts. If you would like me to focus on one particular aspect of nuclear materials, waste management, decommissioning, or uranium recovery activities, just let me know in the comment section below.

George Deegan
Senior Program Analyst (Nuclear Materials/Waste Management)

NRC Talks Virginia Mining

The launch of the NRC Blog prompted a number of interesting comments on issues the NRC faces each day. Here’s one:

I live in Virginia and I would like to comment that a Canadian mining company is attempting to overturn a 1982 moratorium which makes it illegal to mine or mill uranium in Virginia. What seems to be overlooked is the separation of mining & milling uranium from the rest of what I call “the nuclear cycle”! The fact is that mining uranium has never been conducted in an area with as dense population, or with as much rainfall (42 – 45 inches annually). They have decided that we should be an experiment, and they have allies who have vested interests in this industry. We do not want to be guinea pigs in anyone’s experiment.

I would like to solicit the opinion of the NRC on this most important issue.

Uranium recovery – as we refer to the extraction and milling of uranium ore – is a complex regulatory subject covered by many federal and state laws dating all the way back to the Mining Act of 1872. The NRC’s authority stems from the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which gives the agency jurisdiction over uranium once its physical or chemical properties are altered for eventual use in the nuclear fuel cycle. As a result, the NRC does not regulate uranium mines – the conventional shafts or surface (strip) mines – but it does license and regulate uranium mills, the related facilities that process the ore into uranium oxide, or “yellowcake.” There is another type of uranium recovery, called in situ recovery (ISR), which injects a solution into the ground to extract uranium from the rock; the resulting uranium solution is then pumped to the surface for processing. The NRC licenses and regulates ISR facilities because the uranium processing begins underground. (We do not call these facilities “mines,” but everybody else does.)

Now, to Virginia: One of the nation’s larger uranium deposits happens to be in southern Virginia. Uranium prices have soared in recent years, and a company called Virginia Uranium has expressed interest in mining the deposit. The state has commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to study whether mining is feasible and safe given the environmental challenges cited by our commenter. If the project proceeds, it would involve conventional mining, which means the Commonwealth of Virginia and other federal agencies – not the NRC – would regulate the mine itself. However, the company will need to apply to the NRC for a license to construct and operate the mill. The mill would have to meet the tough requirements in NRC regulations (10 CFR 40, Appendix A) to protect the public and the environment from the mill’s operations and waste.

Given this regulatory picture, the NRC has no opinion to express on the Virginia mining project at this time. If and when the company submits a license application for a mill, the NRC will examine it thoroughly for technical safety and environmental impacts. The planned mill must meet NRC’s regulatory requirements for safe operation and protection of the public health and the environment, before it can receive an NRC license.

To correct one mistake in the original comment: According to Virginia Uranium, it is not a Canadian company but is owned by 31 land owners residing near the deposit. Information on the proposed project may be found in the NRC’s online ADAMS document database by searching for accession numbers ML081610623 and ML081630110. An NRC slide presentation to the National Academy of Sciences regarding conventional milling is at: ML110320309.

And for more information on the NRC’s regulation of uranium recovery, including applications under review for new facilities out West, see our newly revised, updated and expanded Uranium Recovery Web page at   http://www.nrc.gov/materials/uranium-recovery.html .

Dave McIntyre
Public Affairs Officer

Meeting the Challenge of Regulating New Reactors

As many of you are aware, the much-anticipated and often-written about global surge in interest in nuclear power is underway. Our agency is in the midst of this surge to safely meet the substantial challenge that many industry experts expect to continue in 2011 and well beyond.

In fact, we are actively reviewing 12 combined license applications that, if approved, could result in the construction and operation of up to 20 new reactors. A map of projected locations for new reactors can be found here: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/col/new-reactor-map.html .

To meet this growing interest in commercial nuclear power, in 2006 the agency created the Office of New Reactors, or in agency-speak, ”NRO.” Located at NRC headquarters, near Washington, D.C., we work closely with a new agency inspection organization in our Region II Office in Atlanta, GA. This structure ensures that we are fully equipped and ready to address the renewed interest in nuclear energy.

Our mission is to serve the public by ensuring the safe, secure and environmentally responsible use of nuclear power in meeting the nation’s future energy needs. However, as federal regulators, it is important to point out that we are not advocates for or against commercial nuclear power.

Our responsibilities in this new office are divided into three subprograms or areas of focus – New Reactor Licensing, Construction Oversight and Advanced Reactors.

In addition, we are active in the international area, including significant participation in the Multinational Design Evaluation Program. This program develops innovative ways to leverage the resources and knowledge of international regulatory authorities to review new reactor power plant designs.

Please look for more detail on each of these areas in future posts. In the meantime, if you have any questions about new reactors, please let us know in the comments to this post.

Bob Jasinski
Senior New Reactors Communications Specialist

Which NRC Data Would Be Most Valuable to You In Open Format?

Data.gov screen

For many years, the NRC has been recognized for proactively making large amounts of data and information available to the public through its website and the Agencywide Documents Access and Management System (ADAMS). But until recently, this data has been available primarily on HTML web pages or embedded within PDF documents.

As a result of President Obama’s Open Government Initiative, the NRC, along with other federal agencies, has begun to make more of its data available in open formats that are machine readable. The use of open formats makes it easier for members of the public to access, use, and combine the data for their own purposes.

Until now, the NRC staff has selected datasets for publication based on institutional knowledge and other information such as the most popular pages on our website. As a result of these efforts, the agency has published more than 20 datasets that we believe are of high value to the public. You can see these datasets at our Open Government page and at data.gov.

Some of the datasets have generated a large number of downloads while others have not. You can get the download statistics on our Open Government page (click on NRC High-Value Data-Set Metrics). As you can see from the last column of this spreadsheet, the average monthly downloads currently range from 11 to 94, with the Nuclear Power Reactor Status Report scoring highest.

In the future, the NRC would like to publish datasets based on your input and interests.

With that in mind, our question to you is this: Which datasets would be most valuable to you? Publishing takes resources. By expressing your views, you can help the NRC direct those resources towards publishing the data-sets with the most value to the public. Please provide your answers in the comments section of this post. We look forward to getting your input!

Francine F. Goldberg
Co-chair, NRC Open Government Advisory Group