We speak to a GAO analyst and an NRC representative to get their viewpoints on the recent progress and processes of US nuclear fuel storage.
The US Governing Accountability Office (GAO) completed a report that has now been issued entitled Spent Nuclear Fuel: Accumulating Quantities at Commercial Reactors Present Storage and Other Challenges, looking at the future of how to handle spent nuclear fuel.
The report concludes that the amount of spent fuel that is stored on site at nuclear power plants is increasing by 2,000 metric tonnes per year, and due to the relatively slow development of building new storage or disposal facilities that may take decades to create, the report estimates that there could be as much as 140,000 metric tonnes of spent fuel that is stored before it can be moved off-site.
The harsh reality of the report’s findings are that most of the reactors currently in operation will have ceased to be in action by 2040,and the options to dispose of spent fuel pool could be limited, while new storage facilities could take between 15 and 40 years before they are able to secrete spent fuel. The GAO has already taken steps to see if they have the solutions to tackle this problem.
Robert Sanchez, senior analyst for the GAO explains: “To determine the most likely options and the most likely time frames for moving spent fuel off-site, we incorporated analysis from a report we conducted in 2009. In this report, we reviewed the characteristics and challenges for completing the Yucca Mountain scenario and two potential alternatives to Yucca Mountain.”
Due to the time frame of the problem the GAO suggested to the NRC that interim provisions for spent fuel storage would be in the best interest of the industry.
Sanchez continues: “The two potential alternatives included two centralized interim storage facilities and continued on site storage, both with eventual geologic disposal. We modelled these alternatives based on the input of key experts and submitted our models to dozens of more experts for review. The difference in the opening dates of each of the facilities is largely dependent on the amount of work that needs to be completed before each facility could open.”
Although the GAO stopped short of making any recommendations to the NRC, and believe that solving the issue with used commercial fuel will be a costly as well as a decades long process.
“Congress may wish to consider whether a more predictable funding mechanism would enhance the federal government’s future efforts to develop and implement a disposal solution for the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. An independent organization, outside DOE, could be more effective in sitting and developing a permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste,” Sanchez adds.
Dealing with spent nuclear fuel is a serious issue, as studies show that the main risk is the release of radiation that potentially would be hugely harmful to health and the environment.
Worst case scenarios
A fire that is self-sustaining that begins in a drained spent fuel pool was considered by the report as the most destructive scenario. In response, the GAO reported on studies conducted to resolve the issue, where replacement water and sprays, fuel assembly configurations, pool density, and also ventilation are key issues in reducing the probability of a spent fuel fire.
The full report was compiled in a spirit of co-operation between the GAO and the NRC, the latter of which says that it is in agreement with most of the report’s findings, and says that they will review their internal practices in ensuring that classified information is available for the future decision makers on spent fuel.
Business as usual until Congress says differently?
Although there have been slight differences, for example on the transferring of spent fuel from wet to dry storage, despite raising this the GAO accept there are risks attached.
“The NRC does not require transfer of spent fuel from wet pools into dry storage on any specific timeframe because we feel both options provide a safe means for storing spent fuel in full compliance with NRC regulations. Both options ensure adequate protection of public health and safety, protect the environment, and promote the common defence and security,” says an NRC spokesperson.
“We have been looking specifically at whether there may be a benefit from accelerating the transfer of spent fuel from wet into dry storage. That study is still in process. But any acceleration would involve additional fuel handling, which has an associated higher risk of an accident as well as potentially higher doses to nuclear plant workers. As new information and circumstances warrant, NRC will continue to evaluate spent fuel storage to ensure that both wet and dry options are safe and secure.”
The NRC is resolute and believes that their own regulations already in place are strong enough to provide safe spent fuel storage, whereby any future changes in how spent fuel is disposed of is a policy question which is to be debated at Congress level, and the NRC maintain that they stand ready to implement any direction agreed on Capitol Hill.
The decision process is not close in reach, but recent moves by the The US Energy Department to look for interested parties to construct a demonstration project for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel is a step forward.
The DOE is due to submit an updated spent fuel strategy to Congress, but with the deep geological site option not a likely scenario, due to current plant operator demand to house the fuel off-site and a no site tested or approved to date, the option of large scale consolidated spent fuel storage sites could be a more realistic and dare we say fast-track option for plant operators, the DOE, politicians and Congress alike.
But a dedicated and independent organisation must take the helm on nuclear waste. Such a move has been set in motion, but will it have the flexibility and decision-making powers to meet the needs of the industry today and in the future? The Nuclear Waste Administration Act, which is expected to "establish a new organization to manage nuclear waste, provide a consensual process for siting nuclear waste facilities, ensure adequate funding for managing nuclear waste, and for other purposes,” is exactly what the US energy industry needs.
In the words of James Conca, a nuclear geological specialist and Forbes contributor:"We will get this right as a Nation, and we will lead the way for the rest of the world. Just let us do it."
Additional reporting by K. Steiner-Dicks
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