WASHINGTON (CN) - Operators of nuclear reactors will be allowed to store spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste on-site for 60 years beyond the operating life of the facility because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is "reasonably assured" that sufficient mined geologic repository capacity will be available "when necessary" to absorb the waste.
The NRC makes this finding despite the Obama administration's decision to shut down the only such repository, at Yucca Mountain, outside Los Vegas, Nev., before it was even finished and the agency's own belief that, regardless of pending appeals, the facility will never be built.
The finding was essential, however, because it has been NRC policy since 1977 that it "would not continue to license reactors if it did not have reasonable confidence that the wastes can and will in due course be disposed of safely."
As the nation's first generation of nuclear reactors have either had their licenses renewed or been taken offline, some of the on-site waste was reaching the previously determined 30 year deadline for removal to a permanent disposal site.
In 1984, the NRC's first Waste Confidence Decision found, with "reasonable assurance" that a geologic repository was technically feasible, that one or more such repositories would be available by 2009, and that sufficient capacity would exist to take all of the waste generated by licensed facilities within 30 years of expiration of all operational reactors.
In 1990, the NRC amended its findings to say that it was "reasonably assured" that at least one mined geologic repository would be available within the first quarter of the twenty-first century" and that by this it meant the original 30 years after an original license expired plus an additional 10 years if a license was renewed.
In the current revision to its Waste Confidence Decision, the NRC says that it finds "reasonable assurance" that a suitable repository will be available "when necessary," which had previously meant within the 30 year time span the agency used to believe it was safe to store radioactive material in temporary on-site holding areas.
With the revision, the plausible date for the availability of a repository would be 2037.
Environmental groups and the Attorneys General of several states object that the NRC's findings violate the National Environmental Policy Act and that a generic determination that radioactive waste can be safely stored for another 30 years beyond its previous determination is a major change in regulation and therefore requires a major reevaluation of the environmental impact of on-site storage.
The National Resources Defense Council said, in public comments on the proposed revision, that the two findings taken together are "in effect, generic licensing decisions that allow for the production of additional spent reactor fuel and other radioactive wastes associated with the uranium fuel cycle essentially in perpetuity."
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo of New York, in written comments, called upon the NRC to "perform a site-specific evaluation of environmental impacts of spent fuel storage at each reactor location, taking into account environmental factors including surrounding population density, water resources, seismicity, subsurface geology, and topography."
The NRC argues that the revisions are minor and that site specific reviews are unnecessary because the NRC already took into account all of the on-site storage facilities in operation when it reached its generic conclusion that they are safe for 60, rather than just 30 years.
Offering a note of reassurance, the NRC did say that "if it becomes clear that a repository will not be available by the expiration of the 60-year post licensed life period, the NRC will revisit the Waste Confidence Decision and Rule early enough to ensure that it continues to have reasonable assurance of the safe storage without significant environmental impacts" of radioactive waste.
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