Future of Spent Nuclear Fuel Up in the Air

Feb 13, 2019
Photo by: Jack Reynolds

After nearly a decade of inaction on moving ahead with a permanent spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, an effort to bring an interim solution for the storage of radioactive fuel from commercially operated nuclear power plants is gaining momentum.

In the process, the Holtec International proposal for New Mexico unintentionally poses an age-old question: which came first, the chicken or the egg – or, in this instance, a repository or the transportation plan to get the spent fuel there.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of the interim spent nuclear fuel repository proposed by Holtec, the Camden-based energy technology giant seeking to purchase the shuttered Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, is still at least a year away. Transportation concerns are happening now.

“What Holtec proposes is without precedent – 173,000-plus tons of radioactive waste brought in one spot in New Mexico,” said Wallace L. Taylor, an attorney representing the Sierra Club. “It will come from all over the country, mostly by rail, sometimes through cities and urban areas. Sometimes through farm areas. I’m from Iowa, so I understand that. And we have to look at the consequences of forcing that transportation issue.”

Taylor’s comments came during a two-day legal proceeding before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to determine whether opponents have standing to dispute Holtec’s application. The proceeding included opposition from the Sierra Club, which argued in length about transportation of spent nuclear fuel from commercially operated nuclear power plants around the country to New Mexico.

The federal Department of Energy is responsible for developing a transportation plan for spent nuclear fuel, according to Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the NRC’s Region I office.

“In order to prepare for future transportation of spent nuclear fuel from shut-down nuclear power plants to eventual storage or disposal facilities, an evaluation of removing spent nuclear fuel from 14 shutdown sites was conducted,” according to the DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy in its Preliminary Evaluation of Removing Used Nuclear Fuel from Shutdown Sites, located on its website.

Those sites include Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, Humboldt Bay, Big Rock Point, Rancho Seco, Trojan, La Crosse, Zion, Crystal River, Kewaunee, San Onofre, Vermont Yankee and Fort Calhoun. There are no other operating reactors at these sites, and plant owners have informed the NRC their reactors have permanently ceased operations, including the removal of spent fuel from the reactor vessels.

In June 2018, Erica Bickford, Ph.D., for the DOE, along with Steve Maheras, a Ph.D. from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, provided an update to the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Decommissioning Citizens Advisory Panel on the status of planning for the future transportation of spent nuclear fuel. The presentation laid out what needs to happen before spent nuclear fuel is transported, including adequate funding from Congress and securing a railcar fleet and transportation casks, as well as determining rail routes and upgrading transportation infrastructures.

Still, there are uncertainties in the seven-year timeline established off the May 2018 transportation schedule detailed last year. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is the high dependency on how the waste management program is established and what resources are available, according to the presentation.

“(The) seven-year timeline does not account for significant technical, supply chain, or litigation challenges,” the presentation states.

At the time of the presentation, the Trump administration requested funding for resuming the licensing of Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site was selected as the DOE’s answer to its charge of finding a long-term solution to storing spent nuclear fuel in 2002. It was abandoned in 2010.

“The DOE is prepared to support the resumption of Yucca Mountain licensing and supports (the) development of interim storage capabilities for spent nuclear fuel,” according to the presentation, noting that in the meantime the Office for Spent Fuel and Waste Disposition will continue to perform analysis and development for the eventual transportation of spent fuel.

Among the activities expected to be conducted in 2018 was fabrication of a railcar prototype, analysis of data from rail cask transport test, and preparing for a shutdown site visit at the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township.

While Exelon Generation, which currently holds the license to Oyster Creek, does not discuss specific transportation plans for shipping spent nuclear fuel, it did lay out how it would remove large plant components in its Post-Shutdown Decommissioning Activities Report, submitted last year to the NRC.

In that matter, the utility giant proposes to ship large plant components via barge by utilizing a portion of Oyster Creek as the barge landing, according to the PSDAR.

“This offsite shoreline was used during plant construction for delivery of the reactor pressure vessel and has continued to be used during operations for large component delivery,” the PSDAR states. “The barge landing is located on Exelon-owned property but is outside the operational area.”

In the meantime, the NRC is aiming to complete its reviews of the Holtec application for its interim repository in the summer of 2020, Sheehan said, noting that could be delayed.

“That does not factor in the hearing process, which could take years,” he said.

The five-member commission that oversees the NRC would hear any appeals of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board’s rulings on any admitted contentions. And any party that is not satisfied with NRC decisions on the application can challenge them in federal court, he said.

— Gina G. Scala


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