GAO says NRC faces interim decisions on spent nuclear fuel at reactor sites

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) could face interim decisions soon about spent reactor fuel – and this could be complicated by the fact that NRC cannot easily access many of the studies it has commissioned over the years on nuclear waste.

Spent fuel from power reactors has been receiving increasing scrutiny lately due to a variety of factors including: the cancellation of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada;the report by the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future; and the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

“In response to GAO requests, however, NRC could not easily identify, locate, or access studies it had conducted or commissioned because it does not have an agency wide mechanism to ensure that it can identify and locate such classified studies,” GAO said in the August report. “As a result, GAO had to take a number of steps to identify pertinent studies, including interviewing numerous officials.”

If nothing else, the NRC might want to round up all “classified” reports on spent nuclear fuel and locate them in one central place, GAO said in the study that was only recently made public.

To help facilitate decisions on storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel over the coming decades, GAO recommends that NRC develop a mechanism for locating all classified studies. NRC generally agreed with the findings and the recommendation in the report.

Spent nuclear fuel, the used fuel removed from nuclear reactors, is one of the most hazardous substances created by humans, GAO noted. Commercial spent fuel is stored at reactor sites; about 74% of it is stored in pools of water, and 26% has been transferred to dry storage casks. The U.S. has no permanent disposal site for the nearly 70,000 metric tons of spent fuel currently stored in 33 states.

The report also examines the pros and cons of speeding up the transfer of spent nuclear fuel from reactor pools to dry cask storage.

The amount of spent fuel stored on-site at commercial nuclear reactors will continue to accumulate—increasing by about 2,000 metric tons per year and likely more than doubling to about 140,000 metric tons—before it can be moved off-site, because storage or disposal facilities may take decades to develop.

Studies show that the key risk posed by spent nuclear fuel involves a release of radiation that could harm human health or the environment. The highest consequence event posing such a risk would be a self-sustaining fire in a drained or partially drained spent fuel pool, resulting in a severe widespread release of radiation. The NRC considers the probability of such an event to be low.

According to studies GAO reviewed, the probability of such a fire is difficult to quantify because of the variables affecting whether a fire starts and spreads. Studies show that this low-probability scenario could have high consequences, however, depending on the severity of the radiation release.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.