Tag Archives: nuclear regulatory commission

Rising Transformation: low to high level nuclear waste disposal facilities

U.S. District Judge Sue L. Robinson of Delaware on June 21,2017 sided with the federal government in blocking a $367 million merger between EnergySolutions and the radioactive site’s parent company. Waste Control Specialists calls the deal essential for its long-term viability.The details of Robinson’s opinion were sealed.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued in November 2017 to block the merger of rival companies, arguing it would essentially create a monopoly on radioactive waste disposal.  “Substantial evidence showed that head-to-head competition between EnergySolutions and Waste Control Specialists led to better disposal services at lower prices,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Andrew Finch of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said in a statement. “Today’s decision protects competition in an industry that is incredibly difficult to enter.”…

Waste Control Specialists, which currently stores low-level radioactive waste in Andrews County*** has a pending application with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to store tens of thousands of metric tons of spent nuclear fuel currently filling up reactor sites across the country. The company has pitched the massive expansion as a solution to a problem that has bedeviled policymakers for decades….

“The WCS site is not a safe place to store deadly high-level radioactive waste,” Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition, said in a statement. “Texans and those along transport routes shouldn’t have to suffer the health, safety, security, financial and environmental risks that transport and storage of the nation’s most dangerous radioactive waste would bring.”

Critics allege that millions in donations by Harold Simmons, owner of Waste Control Specialists, to Texas Governor Rick Perry and other politicians influenced political support for the controversial project…..Critics also cite WCS’ safety record. One 22-ton shipment of low-level radioactive material from a diffusion plant in Illinois failed to arrive at the WCS Andrews facility in late July 2001. Lost for almost a month, the material turned up dumped on a cattle ranch north of Dallas.

Excerpts from  JIM MALEWITZ ,Amid Texas nuclear waste site’s financial woes, judge blocks merger,  The Texas Tribune, June 21, 2017 + Wikipedia

***The plant is located 5 miles east of Eunice, New Mexico, and 35 miles west of Andrews. The surrounding area on both sides of the state border, “nuclear alley”, also includes:

the National Enrichment Facility (owned and operated by the Urenco Group) in Eunice
the deep geological repository Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP; managed by the United States Department of Energy), and
the proposed first commercial uranium de-conversion facility in the United States, a project of International Isotopes, Inc.

Advertisements

$2 Trillion Gamble: congested nuclear pools

This image captures the spread of radioactivity from a hypothetical fire in a high-density spent-fuel pool at the Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania. Based on the guidance from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the experience from the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, populations in the red and orange areas would have to be relocated for many years, and many in the yellow area would relocate voluntarily. In this scenario, which is based on real weather patterns that occurred in July 2015, four major cities would be contaminated (New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.), resulting in the displacement of millions of people. (Photo from http://wws.princeton.edu/news-and-events/news/item/us-nuclear-regulators-greatly-underestimate-potential-nuclear-disaster).

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) relied on faulty analysis to justify its refusal to adopt a critical measure for protecting Americans from the occurrence of a catastrophic nuclear-waste fire at any one of dozens of reactor sites around the country, according to an article in the May 26,  2017 issue of Science magazine. Fallout from such a fire could be considerably larger than the radioactive emissions from the 2011 Fukushima accident in Japan. Published by researchers from Princeton University and the Union of Concerned Scientists, the article argues that NRC inaction leaves the public at high risk from fires in spent-nuclear-fuel cooling pools at reactor sites. The pools—water-filled basins that store and cool used radioactive fuel rods—are so densely packed with nuclear waste that a fire could release enough radioactive material to contaminate an area twice the size of New Jersey. On average, radioactivity from such an accident could force approximately 8 million people to relocate and result in $2 trillion in damages….”The NRC has been pressured by the nuclear industry, directly and through Congress, to low-ball the potential consequences of a fire because of concerns that increased costs could result in shutting down more nuclear power plants,” said paper co-author Frank von Hippel, a senior research physicist at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security (SGS), based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “Unfortunately, if there is no public outcry about this dangerous situation, the NRC will continue to bend to the industry’s wishes.”

Spent-fuel pools were brought into the spotlight following the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan…..”The Fukushima accident could have been a hundred times worse had there been a loss of the water covering the spent fuel in pools associated with each reactor,” von Hippel said. “That almost happened at Fukushima in Unit 4.”

In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the NRC considered proposals for new safety requirements at U.S. plants. One was a measure prohibiting plant owners from densely packing spent-fuel pools, requiring them to expedite transfer of all spent fuel that has cooled in pools for at least five years to dry storage casks, which are inherently safer. Densely packed pools are highly vulnerable to catching fire and releasing huge amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The NRC analysis found that a fire in a spent-fuel pool at an average nuclear reactor site would cause $125 billion in damages, while expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry casks could reduce radioactive releases from pool fires by 99 percent. However, the agency decided the possibility of such a fire is so unlikely that it could not justify requiring plant owners to pay the estimated cost of $50 million per pool.

The NRC cost-benefit analysis assumed there would be no consequences from radioactive contamination beyond 50 miles from a fire. It also assumed that all contaminated areas could be effectively cleaned up within a year. Both of these assumptions are inconsistent with experience after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

In two previous articles, von Hippel and Schoeppner released figures that correct for these and other errors and omissions. They found that millions of residents in surrounding communities would have to relocate for years, resulting in total damages of $2 trillion—nearly 20 times the NRC’s result. Considering the nuclear industry is only legally liable for $13.6 billion, thanks to the Price Anderson Act of 1957, U.S. taxpayers would have to cover the remaining costs.

The authors point out that if the NRC does not take action to reduce this danger, Congress has the authority to fix the problem. Moreover, the authors suggest that states that provide subsidies to uneconomical nuclear reactors within their borders could also play a constructive role by making those subsidies available only for plants that agreed to carry out expedited transfer of spent fuel…

The paper, “Nuclear safety regulation in the post-Fukushima era,” was published May 26 in Science. For more information, see von Hippel and Schoeppner’s previous papers, “Reducing the Danger from Fires in Spent Fuel Pools” and “Economic Losses From a Fire in a Dense-Packed U.S. Spent Fuel Pool,” which were published in Science & Global Security in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The Science article builds upon the findings of a Congressionally-mandated review by the National Academy of Sciences, on which von Hippel served.

Excerpts from US nuclear regulators greatly underestimate potential for nuclear disaster, researchers say, Princeton University Woodrow Wilson  News, May 25,, 2017

How Much it Costs to Close Down Nuclear Plants

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant

According to Callan Investment Institute, underfunded decommissioning costs could amount to $23 billion from investor-owned utilities.  The industry has already set aside $50 billion to fund specific trust funds designated exclusively for decommissioning expenses, mostly collected from ratepayers….

As part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission commissioning and licensing of a power plant, the plant owners establish a trust fund, known as the Nuclear Decommissioning Trust, or NDT. The sole purpose of this trust fund is to provide funds for the cost to decommission the facility when that time comes. The owners contribute annually to the fund, in relationship to the percent ownership, based on projected costs and length of the license. The companies are the final backstop to shortfalls in funding to these trusts.

The origin of the capital for fund contributions is from customer rate cases – in other words, NDT funding is part of our monthly electric bills. Owners are required to review annually and submit every two years to the NRC both the fund balance and cost estimates for decommissioning. The NRC provides a formula of costs for operators to compare with the balances on the NDT, or the companies can file site-specific cost projections for each facility.

The total industry-wide decommissioning costs are estimated by Callan to be $80 billion….[For instance] Entergy, according to the study, their NDT could be short by about $2 billion and to make up this difference over the average life remaining of their licenses, management should be setting aside $186 million a year rather than the $39 million currently. However, ETR is not alone in the study. The industry contributed $315 million in 2013 when Callan calculates the amount should be closer to $1.6 billion. Below are some shortfall numbers for the five largest nuclear power generators,…

According to Callan, Exelon has potential net deficiencies of $7.7 billion including Constellation Energy; Duke has a potential net deficiency of $2.3 billion; Entergy of $2.0 billion; Dominion Resources  of $1.3 billion; and NextEra has a potential surplus of $208 million. Combined, the largest five producers of nuclear power have a potential decommissioning deficit of $13.1 billion, or 57% of the projected total industry-wide.

Excerpts from George Fisher, A $23 Billion Potential Shortfall For 27 Utilities With Nuclear Power Plants, Seeking Alpha,May. 15, 2015

Full Study (pdf)

Nuclear Waste Confidence: the hurry-up environmental impact assessment

Dry cask sstorage nuclear waste. Image from wikipedia

In documents filed Wednesday (Jan. 2, 2012)  with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a wide range of national and grassroots environmental groups said it would be impossible for the NRC to adequately conduct a court-ordered assessment of the environmental implications of long-term storage of spent nuclear reactor fuel in the two short years the federal agency envisions for the process.The groups’ comments and related declarations by experts are available online at http://www.psr.org/resources/nrc-rushing-nuclear-waste-confidence-process.html

In June 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated the NRC’s 2010 Waste Confidence Decision and Temporary Storage Rule and remanded them to the agency for study of the environmental impacts of storing spent fuel indefinitely if no permanent nuclear waste repository is licensed or if licensing of a repository is substantially delayed. Spent nuclear fuel remains highly dangerous for prolonged periods. It has long-lived radioactive materials in it that can seriously contaminate the environment and harm public health if released. Additionally, spent nuclear fuel contains plutonium-239, a radiotoxic element that can be used to make nuclear weapons if separated from the other materials in the fuel. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of over 24,000 years.

In their filings, the 24 groups said a full review of the three issues outlined in June 2012 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – long-term storage risks for spent nuclear fuel, spent fuel pool fire risks, and spent fuel pool leakage risks – would take at least the seven years originally projected by the NRC staff, and likely considerably longer. Current federal law requires that the NRC conduct a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) study before issuing a revised Waste Confidence Decision; the 24 groups submitted their comments about the appropriate “scoping” of the EIS.

In the absence of an adequate EIS review, the NRC has “no choice but to continue to suspend all licensing and re-licensing actions” for U.S. nuclear reactors, according to the 24 organizations. All licensing and re-licensing actions were previously suspended by the NRC until an EIS and revised Waste Confidence Decision have been issued.  The 24 groups jointly filing the comments today with the NRC are the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, Beyond Nuclear, Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, Center for a Sustainable Coast, Citizens Allied for Safe Energy, Citizens Environmental Alliance, Don’t Waste Michigan, Ecology Party of Florida, Friends of the Earth, Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, New England Coalition, Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, NC WARN, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, Nuclear Watch South, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Public Citizen, Riverkeeper, San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace, SEED Coalition, Sierra Club Nuclear Free Campaign, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The expert declarations were made by: Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research; Dr. Gordon Thompson, executive director for the Institute for Resource and Security Studies; and Phillip Musegaas, Esq., Hudson River program director for Riverkeeper, Inc.

Highlights of the 24-group filings include the following:

•The “hurry-up” two-year timeframe for environmental review falls far short of the 2019 estimate of NRC’s own technical staff for data collecting and analysis on the impacts of long-term storage of spent nuclear fuel. The NRC currently lacks sufficient information to reach scientifically, well-founded conclusions about the impacts of such storage. The agency also lacks information regarding the impacts associated with the eventual disposal of spent nuclear fuel. According to Dr. Makhijani, the NRC will not be able to gather this information within its truncated, self-imposed two-year timeframe.

•The short timeframe provided for environmental review will also not permit post-Fukushima information about U.S. reactors to be fully collected and evaluated. Under the schedule established by the NRC staff in March 2012, reactor licensees are not due to supply post-Fukushima seismic information until September 2013 for reactor sites in the eastern and central U.S. and March 2015 for western reactor sites. According to the groups’ filing with the NRC today: “Given the significant role played by seismic events in accidents ranging from spent fuel pool leaks to pool fires and their potential effects on long-term storage sites, this information is crucial to the NRC’s ability to take a ‘hard look’ at all three topics remanded by the Court.”

•Despite the Court’s order to consider impacts associated with the failure to ever establish a permanent repository for spent nuclear fuel, the NRC proposed only to consider the impacts associated with failing to secure a repository by the end of this century. Dr. Makhijani and Dr. Thompson argue that the NRC should consider the environmental impacts of failing to establish a repository until 2250, requiring approximately 300 years of onsite storage.

•The NRC should consider alternatives to minimize the risks of storage of spent nuclear fuel and high level waste, including placement below ground level, elimination of the current practice of high-density storage of spent fuel in pools, and more robust designs for storage casks.

•The environmental impact statement should assess the radiological risk arising from a range of conventional accidents or attacks, including those conducted by terrorists.

24 Groups: NRC Rushing Nuclear “Waste Confidence” Process, Not Satisfying Court-Ordered Requirements, PRNewswire, Jan. 3, 2013

Safety of Nuclear Fuel at Pools: From Fukushima to Yucca Mountain

An Entergy Corp.  unit sued the U.S. for $100 million alleging the government breached a contract for disposal of nuclear waste at two plants in Michigan.  Entergy Nuclear Palisades LLC, owner of the Palisades Nuclear Plant and the Big Rock Point plant, alleged yesterday that the Energy Department collected fees under a 1983 contract without ever starting to dispose of the radioactive material. The suit is in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington.  Entergy and a previous owner of the shuttered Big Rock Point plant “have fully complied with all their fee payment obligations under the contract,” according to the complaint. “The government, however, has failed to perform its reciprocal obligation to dispose of spent nuclear fuel, and currently has no plan to meet these obligations.”

Entergy’s lawsuit is the latest legal challenge stemming from the federal government’s failure to create a central, long- term facility to store nuclear waste.  Most nuclear-plant owners continue to store spent nuclear fuel onsite despite contributing for decades into a fund meant to finance a central waste depository.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is freezing U.S. operating licenses for at least two years as it reassesses waste-storage risks and strategies in response to a June 8 order by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.  See US Court of Appeals

Entergy Corp., based in New Orleans, is the second-largest owner of nuclear plants in the U.S.  Through June 30, Entergy and Consumers Energy Co., the former owner of Big Rock Point, have paid about $274 million into the fund under the contract, the company said. Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The case is Entergy Nuclear Palisades LLC v. U.S., 12-cv- 1641, U.S. Court of Federal Claims (Washington).

By Tom Schoenberg and Julie Johnsson, Entergy Sues U.S. for Failure to Dispose of Nuclear Waste, Bloomberg, Sep 27, 2012

The Nuclear Proliferation Potential of Laser Enrichment

The following is being released by Physicians for Social Responsibility:  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is putting U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy at risk if it decides not to require a formal nuclear proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process for a uranium laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, N.C.  That’s the message from 19 nuclear non-proliferation experts in a letter sent today asking the NRC to fulfill its statutory responsibility to assess proliferation threats related to the technologies it regulates. The letter is available online at http://www.psr.org/nrcassessment.

Global Laser Enrichment, LLC, a joint venture of General Electric (USA), Hitachi (Japan) and Cameco (Canada), has applied for a license to operate a laser enrichment facility in Wilmington, North Carolina, based on Australian SILEX technology. The NRC licensing review schedule sets September 30, 2012 as the date of license issuance.  One of the authors of the letter, Catherine Thomasson, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility, said:“It is a widely shared view that laser enrichment could be an undetectable stepping-stone to a clandestine nuclear weapons program. To strengthen U.S. policy and protect the U.S. and the world from nuclear proliferation, the NRC should systematically and thoroughly assess the proliferation risks of any new uranium enrichment technology BEFORE issuing a license allowing their development.”  Dr. Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, said: “If the U.S. is going to have moral authority in dealing with proliferation threats in other nations, such as Iran, it must do a better job of taking responsible steps in relation to proliferation threats in our own backyard. In fact, a persuasive case can be made that laser enrichment technology requires even more immediate action, since this is a known danger that can be addressed directly by the NRC under its existing regulatory authority.”

In the letter, the experts note that the NRC has no rules or requirements for a nuclear proliferation assessment as part of this licensing process. The experts are concerned that the Commission is falling short in its duties since a 2008 NRC manual on enrichment technology clearly states that laser enrichment presents “extra proliferation concerns due to the small size and high separation factors.”

Previous letters to the NRC asking for a proliferation assessment, signed by many of today’s signatories, have been rebuffed. NRC is on record stating that the National Environmental Policy Act does not require preparation of a proliferation assessment. However, a March 27, 2012 memorandum from the Congressional Research Service clearly concludes that the NRC has legal authority “to promulgate a regulation” requiring a proliferation assessment as part of the licensing process.  Both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 and the Atomic Energy Act are cited by the experts as statutory basis of the NRC’s responsibility to assess proliferation risks.

Excerpt, 19 Experts: Nuclear Proliferation Risks Of Laser Enrichment Require Fuller NRC Review, PRNewswire, Sept 5, 2012

Proliferation Risks of Laser Enrichment

Laser Uranium Enrichment

Nuclear Waste Disposal in the United States, who will run with the ball?

Two years after President Obama pulled the plug on plans for the nation’s only high-level nuclear-waste dump, it’s still not clear if the decision is final.  On Friday, a federal-appeals court ruled 2-1 that the court may order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to restart efforts to license Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a nuclear-waste repository.  The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, responding to filings by the state of Washington and others, said federal law makes clear that the NRC is obligated to continue trying to license the dump site — regardless of what the Obama administration has said.  Unless Congress decides otherwise by mid-December, two of the judges indicated they would likely be willing at that time to order the NRC to restart the process.

Washington and South Carolina, as well as others representing the nuclear industry, have long counted on Yucca Mountain as the final resting place for spent nuclear fuel and millions of gallons of radioactive waste left over from Cold War bomb production.  That’s where the 153 million gallons of nuclear slop in leaky underground tanks at Eastern Washington’s Hanford reservation were slated to go once a treatment plant turned the waste into stable glass rods.  But the White House in 2010, during Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hard-fought election in Nevada, announced it would withdraw the license application for the unpopular project 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The NRC chairman unilaterally stopped the licensing process in its tracks. That led to lawsuits from the states, an internal investigation and ultimately the chairman’s resignation.  But now the NRC maintains that it has too little money appropriated to reconsider Yucca Mountain — an argument the states found lacking.  “The NRC didn’t provide any legal argument other than saying, at this point, ‘We’ve spent a bunch of money and we’re down to about $10 million,’ ” said Andy Fitz, an assistant attorney general for the state of Washington. “Our position was that they had put themselves in that situation. They had decided to put money to other uses. That’s not a legally valid excuse.”  Two of the three judges agreed, but said they would wait until Congress finishes its appropriations process later this year.

But even if Congress doesn’t clarify its position on whether it wants the NRC to move forward, the judges made clear they probably would.  “It is possible that Congress will … add no clarity to the current dispute,” one judge wrote, later adding, “If Congress provides no additional clarity on the matter, however, we will be compelled to act.”

By Craig Welch, Court re-energizes fight for nuclear-waste repository, Seattle Times, Aug. 3, 2012

See also Nuclear Waste in the United States: the risk of leaks

Who Wants to Open the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository Site?