NRC considers long-term on-site storage of waste

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Monday, Aug. 30 2010 BRATTLEBORO - The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted earlier this month to explore the option of storing nuclear waste at decommissioned sites past the current 30-year standard.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko wrote in his vote, "The Commission has made a generic determination that, if necessary, spent fuel generated in any reactor can be stored safely and without significant environmental impacts for at least 60 years beyond the licensed life for operation."

He also recommended that the staff prepare an update to the Waste Confidence Findings and Proposed Rule, "to account for storage on site storage facilities, off-site storage facilities, or both, for more than 100 years, but no longer than 300 years, from the end of licensed operations of any nuclear power plant, which may include the term of a revised or renewed license."

Now that all the chairmen have voted, the Secretary of the Commission will condense the information and provide guidance for the staff, NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.

"It's been proven you can store this material safely on site," Sheehan said.

The Public Service Board issued a certificate of public good in 2006 allowing Entergy, which owns and operates the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, to store nuclear waste in dry casks on a concrete pad just to the north of the plant's reactor building.

Spent fuel is stored at nuclear power plants either in spent fuel pools or in dry casks. In the United States, 45 power plant sites have dry cask storage.

According to Sheehan, dry casks are designed to withstand a range of naturally occurring phenomena, including earthquakes.

There are 21 decommissioned nuclear reactors around the country, he said.

"Some of the plants that were permanently shut down have been totally dismantled, as in the case of Maine Yankee and Connecticut Yankee," Sheehan said. "If you go to those sites today, all you will find from the nuclear operations are the dry cask storage facilities. Other decommissioned plants, like Millstone, are mothballed, awaiting the shutdown of the other units still operating at the site." The reactor core holds 368 fuel assemblies, each of which remains in the reactor for 4-anda- half years before being moved to the spent fuel pool. The capacity of the spent fuel pool is 3,355 assemblies and room must be maintained to keep space for the full-core offload of the reactor's 368 assemblies.

Each dry cask weighs about 100 tons and contains 68 fuel assemblies.

Thomas Kauffman, senior media relations manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry-funded organization that promotes nuclear power around the world, told the Reformer in an Oct. 2009 interview that safety and security would be improved if all the dry casks from every power plant site, active and decommissioned, were moved to an interim storage facility.

"Dry cask storage is proven," he said. "It's safe. These things are designed to take anything that the plant can take," he said, including floods, fires, hurricanes, high and low temperatures and even impacts from aircraft. "They're very tough."

Even if the storage pad at Vermont Yankee, which is located at an elevation of 254 feet above sea level, is flooded, he said, "The casks aren't going anywhere. They wouldn't be approved if they couldn't handle that."

When a disposal facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada was proposed, in the mid-1980s, it was estimated that it would be opened between 2007 and 2009. Legal and environmental challenges have slowed that process to a halt, which prompted the research into on-site storage, Sheehan said.

"There aren't many options left," he said.

Entergy applied to the NRC in 2006 to extend the operating license of the power plant in Vernon from 2012 to 2032. In addition to NRC approval, Entergy must receive approval from the state Legislature, which voted in February 26 to 4 against continued operation.

If the plant closes in 2012, it would be mothballed, or put into SAFSTOR, until its decommissioning fund reaches the level necessary to clean up the site, which could take up to 60 years.

By 2012, another seven to eight canisters will need to be filled and if the plant closed that year, 55 to 60 dry casks will be needed. Before any changes to the plan are made however, a special committee, selected by President Obama will have to approve the recommendation by the NRC.

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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