Today, only 25% of the country’s 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored in dry cask units. Seventy-five percent of spent fuel rods are stored in overcrowded pools at local nuclear power plant sites.
The history of the backend of the nuclear fuel cycle in the U.S. has not been a pretty one. Even the president’s own Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future admits the intent of the federal government to relieve local communities of the burden of storing spent fuel rods “has not worked to produce a timely solution for dealing with the nation’s most hazardous radioactive material.”
With the passage of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the federal government promised to store all commercially-generated nuclear fuel wastes in two permanent underground nuclear waste depositories. In 1987, the U.S. designated Yucca Mountain in Nevada to be the said depository. The project was supposed to be completed in the mid 1990’s. That didn’t happen.
In 2009, the Obama Administration halted developing the Yucca Mountain repository, in effect killing all plans for a national waste repository. There is currently no federal storage site available for these spent fuel rods as mandated by the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Today, only 25% of the country’s 65,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored in dry cask units. Seventy-five percent of spent fuel rods are stored in overcrowded pools at local nuclear power plant sites. The original intent of the spent fuel pools was for temporary fuel rod storage as the country awaited the timely opening of a permanent waste repository. That hasn’t happened.
Meanwhile, nuclear power plants are licensed, inspected and overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC was created as an independent agency by Congress in 1974 to “enable the nation to safely use radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while ensuring that people and the environment are protected.” The NRC regulates commercial nuclear power plants and other uses of nuclear materials.”
Currently with regard to the storage of spent fuel, the agency considers storage in spent fuel pools and dry casks onsite to be both “safe, and thus does not mandate the transfer of spent fuel to dry casks at any nuclear power plant.” In addition, the NRC is not recommending any regulatory changes in spent fuel storage practices, even in light of the events at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami hit in March of 2011.
After the tragic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011 and the subsequent damage to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission established a near-term task force to review the Fukushima Dai-ishi accident. Its report entitled, Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century was released in July of 2011.
While the NRC’s review and recommendations covered many areas of plant safety, in regard to spent fuel pool safety, the Task Force recommended nuclear plants increase pool monitoring to ensure sufficient cooling operations … and improve the plant’s capacity for cooling through enhanced backup electrical supplies and the means to spray cool water into the pools.
No mention was made of transferring spent fuel rods out of crowded pools into dry cask storage. This is not surprising in light of the NRC’s stance that there is no difference in the risk associated between onsite fuel rod pools and dry cask storage.
The Blue Ribbon Commission
With the end of Yucca Mountain, the United States had no solution to its long-term nuclear waste storage problem. So in January 2010, President Obama created The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. They are tasked with conducting a “comprehensive review of policies for managing the back-end of the nuclear fuel cycle and to recommend a new course of action.”
On July 29, 2011, the Blue Ribbon Commission released its report. The report characterized the country’s nuclear waste management policy as “broken down.” The commission urges a “new strategy” as follows:
1. Establish a new facility consent-based siting process and ensure buy-in from the states first … and develop a sound strategy for future interim storage to begin the orderly transfer of spent fuel from reactor sites and then finally to permanent disposal facilities.
2. Establish a “single-purpose”, Congressionally-chartered federal corporation which would be “independent” from the government, even though the board is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. This new company’s central task would be to “site, license, build and operate facilities for the interim storage and final disposal of nuclear waste”.
3. Change the current funding law to transfer the unspent balance in the Nuclear Waste Fund to this new nuclear waste-management company.
The Blue Ribbon Commission also acknowledged …
"Even with timely development of consolidated storage facilities, a large quantity of spent fuel will remain at reactor sites for many decades before it can be accepted by the federal waste management program.
Clearly, current at-reactor storage practices and safeguards—particularly with regard to the amount of spent fuel allowed to be stored in spent fuel pools—will have to be scrutinized in light of the lessons that emerge from Fukushima. To that end, the Commission is recommending that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) conduct a thorough assessment of lessons learned from Fukushima and their implications for conclusions reached in earlier NAS studies on the safety and security of current storage
arrangements for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste in the United States … As part of this process, it is appropriate for the NRC to examine the advantages and disadvantages of options such as “hardened” onsite storage that have been proposed to
enhance security at storage sites.”
What’s more, the Blue Ribbon Commission further concluded that it “sees no unmanageable safety or security risks associated with current methods of storage (dry or wet) at existing sites in the United States.”
However, the report acknowledges that “Safe and secure interim storage is another critical element of an integrated and flexible national waste management system. Fortunately, experience shows that interim storage—either at or away from the sites where the waste was generated—can be implemented safely and cost-effectively.” This argument should be used in efforts to persuade Congress to act to release funds from the Nuclear Waste Fund for the construction of onsite dry cask storage.
While their proposed plans may work, by their own admission the Blue Ribbon Commission believes that dry or wet storage of nuclear waste will continue to be stored at nuclear power plants –built in residential communities – for decades to come.
With that time-frame assessment, it is imperative that spent fuel rods currently stored in overcrowded pools be moved as soon as possible to hardened dry cask storage.
Nuclear Fuel Cycle Background
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