The headlines that trumpet a cacophony of changing events both at home and abroad have left little room for in-depth analysis of a less spectacular, but perhaps just as important, issue.
IN A SEPT. 19 meeting that took only a few minutes, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission passed a ruling regarding continued used nuclear fuel storage. Without getting into all of the history, court challenges and past waste confidence policy issues, suffice it to say this ruling is a potential game-changer for how this country regards the role of nuclear energy in its future energy plans.
The essence of the issue is that the lack of a geological repository specifically identified for used nuclear fuel has caused the government to consider other alternatives. These include, but are not limited to, on-site storage of the fuel and consolidated interim storage.
A series of court challenges over time has seen the NRC stick to its so-called waste confidence rule. This rule has aspects that are pertinent to this discussion.
One is that if you don’t have a place to put the used fuel, then you can’t make any more. Anti-nuclear activists have pushed the viewpoint that no more nuclear power plants should be licensed until there is a permanent repository. The NRC has responded in the past that they are confident that a repository would be available before it is needed, and merely kept changing the date when that would occur.
THIS APPROACH led to a challenge that the NRC was violating the National Environmental Protection Act by proposing a significant new federal project without having determined the environmental impact. This environmental impact could be looked at in every case to significantly slow each new license application.
The NRC’s recent action closes out the waste confidence rule and introduces the continued storage rule. This rule was adopted at the end of August based on a two-year study to determine, generically, the environmental impact of different scenarios of storage. The first of these scenarios was on-site storage for the 60-year operating period of the nuclear power
plant. The second of these also considered impacts from an additional 100-year period of storage, and then a third scenario where the fuel remained on-site indefinitely.
The study found no significant environmental impacts from any of the scenarios. This is a huge determination, because now when anti-nuclear forces attempt to slow a license application by demanding an environmental impact statement be performed on the matter of used fuel storage, the applicant simply can incorporate the ruling by reference, thus negating that approach as an effective delaying tactic.
A VERY IMPORTANT caveat should be noted. Existing institutional controls were assumed to be maintained throughout the duration of the particular scenario. This begs for an analysis of the economics of maintaining institutional controls at multiple site locations, vs. consolidated storage and its attendant controls, vs. geologic storage. Such analyses are not likely to be defined in any way that will provide an irrefutable answer to the used fuel storage problem, since these kinds of analyses have been going on for 30 years with no definitive conclusions.
The NRC’s determination tips the playing field to a more favorable position for nuclear advocates in that the anti-nuclear forces have long had the benefit of arguing that we don’t know what to do about nuclear waste, so therefore we should not use the technology. The action of the NRC, although not addressing all potential impacts, is effectively saying, “So what?” and “There are no significant environmental impacts from indefinite storage of used fuel.” This means that, not only is used fuel storage safe, but any sense of urgency to resurrect Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, or to find an alternative such as New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, is diminished.
LOCALLY, IT MEANS that vitrified high-level waste at Savannah River Site may have to look for a permanent home somewhere other than in Yucca Mountain. So, a potential downside to this new rule is that it may help sustain the atmosphere for not dealing with the permanent storage issue. Imagine that!
(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.)