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US NRC approves publication of draft waste confidence rule


The five-member US Nuclear Regulatory Commission unanimously approved Monday the publication for public comment of a draft proposed waste confidence rule.

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NRC staff's proposed rule does not limit the agency's judgment of how long spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely and says a repository is expected to be operational within 60 years after a nuclear power reactor's license expires. Waste confidence reflects the commission's belief spent fuel can be safely stored until it is disposed of and is central to licensing new reactors and renewing the operating licenses of existing ones.

The commission said in a memorandum to NRC staff Monday that publication of the proposed rule should request public comments on, among other issues, "whether specific policy statements regarding the timeline for repository availability should be removed from the rule text" and "whether specific policy statements regarding the safety of continued spent fuel storage should be made in the rule text given the expansive and detailed information" in a draft environmental impact statement on the subject.

In comments attached to their vote sheets, released by NRC on Monday, the commissioners disagreed on the question of whether the proposed rule should address when a repository might become available.

NRC Chairwoman Allison Macfarlane said the rule should not include language on that issue, because "[t]he timing of a repository is based on policy decisions and societal factors that are beyond the authority and control of the Commission."

Commissioner William Magwood agreed with that position in his comments.

Macfarlane emphasized, however, that "the best way to ensure long-term isolation of high-level waste from the environment is emplacement of that material in a deep geological repository. A policy of indefinite storage relies upon active controls and maintenance that will be an increasingly costly burden to our society."

Commissioner Kristine Svinicki disagreed with Macfarlane and Magwood, saying use of a repository time frame in the draft EIS "for analytical purposes" is "both reasonable and appropriate."

Commissioner William Ostendorff said he agrees with staff "that it is feasible that a repository can be available within 60 years following the licensed life for reactor operation."

Commissioner George Apostolakis said he prefers to resolve the issue after public comments are received.

NRC staff said in a June 7 proposed rule, made public June 24, that the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel would be small even if that fuel were to be stored indefinitely because spent fuel canisters, storage casks and dry transfer systems would be replaced every 100 years. Staff also said the repository timeline is consistent with DOE's goal of having a disposal facility operational by 2048.

If approved by the commission and finalized, the proposed rule would replace a 2010 NRC waste confidence decision and spent fuel storage rule that the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated last year and remanded to the agency to be redone. The commission has said it will take no final action to issue licenses to build and operate new nuclear power reactors, or to renew the operating licenses of existing reactors, until the revised waste confidence rule is finalized, which is expected in summer 2014.

--Steven Dolley,
--Edited by Jason Lindquist,