No Confidence in Spent Fuel Storage

NRC’s current regulatory guidance concedes that “data is not currently available” supporting the safe transportation of high burn spent nuclear fuel.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently published a complex article outlining some reasons current plans for storing spent nuclear fuel are flawed and dangerous. We’ve outlined the gist of the argument here, but for more details and references, you’ll need to read the original article.

In 2010, after more than a decade of controversy, the US Department of Energy officially terminated efforts to license a permanent high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountian, Nevada. The high level, intensely radioactive waste is mostly spent fuel assemblies. That is, fuel rods that have been removed from reactors, which contain many new radioactive isotopes as a result of their use.

With plans for the only permanent repository in the United States cancelled, a federal court threw out the underpinning of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) radioactive waste policy–its “waste confidence” rule. That rule had stated the NRC was confident that high-level radioactive waste always would be stored or disposed safely, and thus could continue to be generated.

Because of this court decision, in the summer of 2012, the NRC instituted a moratorium on licenses for new reactors, and renewals for existing licenses. In September 2014, the NRC approved a new policy. The NRC asserts that storage of the waste in dry casks will be safe for a century, and that storage in pools will be safe for some 60 years before that.

If these assertions were true, and if they were to stand up to court challenges, it would mean the nation has a century and a half to devise a permanent storage solution (equivalent to what Yucca Mountian was supposed to be). However, there’s a big problem with the assertion.

Data on long-term behavior of spent fuel assemblies is based on the fuel rods in use for 50 or more years. These standard fuel rods contained enough uranium 235 (the easily fissioned isotope of uranium) to allow a reactor to run for a year before shutdown for new fuel rods to be installed.

Quoting from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article:

In recent years, however, US utilities have begun using what is called high-burnup fuel. This fuel generally contains a higher percentage of uranium 235, allowing reactor operators to effectively double the amount of time the fuel can be used, reducing the frequency of costly refueling outages.

Evidence is mounting that spent high-burnup fuel poses little-studied challenges to the temporary used-fuel storage plans now in place and to any eventual arrangement for a long-term storage repository. High burnup significantly boosts the radioactivity in spent fuel and its commensurate decay heat.

The NRC and the nuclear industry do not have the necessary information to predict when storage of high-burnup fuel may cause problems.

NRC’s current regulatory guidance concedes that “data is not currently available” supporting the safe transportation of high burn spent nuclear fuel.

Alliance to Halt Fermi 3 supports court challenges to the NRC’s poor substitute for their invalidated “waste confidence” rule. We believe that the license for Fermi 3 and the extended license for Fermi 2, both issued since September of 2014, should be invalidated when their new rule is invalidated.

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