A two-year moratorium on issuing new nuclear power plant licenses is now over after a Tuesday vote of the five-member board that oversees the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The moratorium was in response to a June 2012 decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that ordered the NRC to consider the possibility the federal government may never take possession of the nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at power plant sites scattered around the country.
In addition to lifting the moratorium, the five-member board also approved guidance replacing the Waste Confidence Rule.
“The previous Waste Confidence Rule determined that spent fuel could be safely stored on site for at least 60 years after a plant permanently ceased operations,” said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.
In the new standard, Continued Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel Rule, NRC staff members reassessed three timeframes for the storage of spent fuel — 60 years, 100 years and indefinitely.
“The completion of this rule-making is an important step that will facilitate final decisions on industry licensing actions pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Ellen Ginsburg, vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute.
“Industry supports the commission’s decision to continue its long-standing and court-sanctioned practice of considering long-term used fuel storage issues generically,” she said. “Issuance of this rule will maximize efficiency in the licensing and relicensing processes while ensuring the agency complies with the requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act to disclose the environmental impacts of used fuel storage.”
The Waste Confidence Rule had been the NRC’s generic determination regarding the environmental impacts of storing spent nuclear fuel beyond the licensed life for operation of a nuclear power plant. This generic analysis had incorporated into the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) reviews for new reactor licenses, license renewals, and Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation licenses.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals found the NRC’s Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) didn’t satisfy its obligations under NEPA; that in making a “Finding Of No Significant Impact,” the NRC needed to add additional discussions concerning the impacts of failing to secure permanent disposal for spent nuclear fuel, and concerning the impacts of certain aspects of potential spent fuel pool leaks and spent fuel pool fires.
The five-member commission concluded the new GEIS satisfies the NEPA requirements.
The Generic Environmental Impact Statement used to support the new rule analyzes impacts across a number of resource areas throughout each timeframe. Areas examined include land use, air and water quality, and historic and cultural resources. It also contains the NRC’s analysis of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.
According to the NRC, there were key assumptions used to justify the GEIS.
They included, but are not limited to: Institutional controls, including the continued regulation of spent fuel, will continue; spent fuel canisters and casks would end up replaced approximately once every 100 years; a dry transfer system will end up built at each location for fuel repacking; and all spent fuel will transfer from spent fuel pools to dry storage no more than 60 years after operations cease.