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.

Updating Nuclear Materials Transportation Regulations

Jessica Umaña
Project Manager, Division of Spent Fuel Storage and Transportation

The idea of transporting nuclear materials can make people nervous. It’s easy to imagine worst-case accidents on the highway or involving a train. But stringent safety requirements, as well as coordination among federal agencies, international regulators, and state and local officials, help to ensure these shipments are made safely. This structure provides many layers of safety.

From time to time, the requirements are updated to address new information. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and U.S. Department of Transportation recently updated their requirements. The NRC is now amending ours to reflect those updates, as well as to make some changes we feel are needed based on recent experience. You can read the Federal Register notice on the proposed rule.

mapWhile the rules are being updated, the fact remains that nuclear materials are transported safely all the time. By far the majority of shipments involve small quantities of nuclear materials. Millions of these shipments are made each year and arrive at their destination without incident. Occasionally, the carrier might be involved in a traffic accident. But in decades of transporting nuclear materials, there has never been an accident that resulted in a radioactive release.

Smaller shipments must be made in compliance with DOT regulations for shipping hazardous materials. The greater the potential risk of the contents, the more stringent DOT’s packaging requirements are. The DOT regulations limit how much radioactivity can be transported in each package. That way, no transport accident involving these small shipments would pose a serious health threat.

But what about larger amounts of radioactive materials? What about spent nuclear fuel?

In addition to having to meet DOT requirements, more radioactive cargo such as spent fuel must meet NRC regulations for nuclear materials packaging and transport in 10 CFR Part 71. These regulations include very detailed requirements for shipping under normal conditions, as well as stringent tests to show the packages can withstand severe accidents. These are the regulations we are updating now.

If you would like to learn more about the transportation of spent fuel and radioactive materials, see our newly updated backgrounder.