NRC Commissioners talk about Yucca Mountain
The New York Times has excellent coverage this week of two speeches by NRC Commissioners Gregory Jazcko (right) and Dale Klein. What’s significant about them is that both proceed from the point of view of the chairman’s role. Jazcko is the current chair and Dale Klein is the past chair. Although still a member of the Commission, Klein will leave the NRC as soon as three pending appointments are confirmed by the Senate.
Both men spoke to a packed Regulatory Information Conference, an annual event that has a daunting agenda of tough minded regulatory topics that usually tax the mental powers of even the most seasoned nuclear engineers. However, this week there was no mistake about the very different views the two NRC commissions brought to the question of what to do about spent nuclear fuel.
The NRC currently allows nuclear utilities to store spent nuclear fuel at the reactor under a “waste confidence rule.” It anticipates the government has confidence that by 2020 it will have figured out what to do with the spent fuel. For the time being, dry cask storage at reactors looks like it has a shelf life of 50-60 years. However, Edward F. Spout III,the federal official who once ran the Yucca Mountain program, told the New York TImes, “You can’t keep that stuff in those canisters forever.”
Yucca Mountain license application
This brings us to the two speeches. Jazcko’s speech has hints of the political winds which he sailed to the current position he holds at the NRC. He is a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) (rght) whose only interest in the issue of spent fuel is that none of it is stored in his state.
As Senate Majority leader, Sen. Reid is responsible for carrying the Obama administration’s water on crucial issues like health care and climate change. There is a price for this service, and Reid has made it clear the termination of the Yucca Mountain license application is part of it. Reid also saw to it that funds for evaluating the license were stripped from the NRC’s budget. The final step in a march to political oblivion is that the Department of Energy said it wants to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license application.
Jazcko’s speech has these highlights . . .
“I would like to address an “elephant in the room” – the update to the Waste Confidence Rule. The Commission has been focusing on this update to our generic determination of the environmental impacts of spent nuclear fuel and working to develop a final answer . . .
Staff has taken a fresh look at the technical basis for our waste confidence findings and reaffirmed that spent nuclear fuel in any reactor can be safely stored, without a significant impact to the environment, for 50 to 60 years after the licensed life of operation . . .
We should leave the ultimate strategy of disposal to organizations like the Blue Ribbon Commission whose job it is to examine the alternatives and make the recommendations on permanent disposal.”
In this speech, Jazcko basically takes the Yucca Mountain license application and punts the issue of spent nuclear fuel into the future. He says we’ve got 50-60 years to make up our minds. Technically, he’s right, but given the tens of billions the government has spent so far, and the limited storage space reactors have for the fuel, don’t we as taxpayers and citizens deserve more diligence on the subject?
Methods to regulate spent nuclear fuel
Klein’s speech talked about the safety mission of the NRC. Instead of political process, Klein talked about scientific integrity.
The New York Times characterized Klein’s remarks as “blunt” with regard to the White House decision to withdraw the Yucca Mountain license.
The absence of a scientific judgment about Yucca Mountain, Klein said, does not create a vacuum to be filled by expedient solutions.
“Those who would distort the science of Yucca Mountain for political purposes should be reminded that it was a year ago today that the President issued his memorandum on scientific integrity, in which he stated that “The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” [Italics added.] I honestly cannot say if Yucca Mountain could ever meet the stringent tests that would allow it to be licensed. But I do know that, under the law, that licensing determination… and the technical evaluation of the science… is the NRC’s responsibility.”
I think the current situation demonstrates that those of us who resisted a rush to update the waste confidence findings were correct to proceed with caution. I continue to question whether the Commission would have maintained its public credibility if it had finalized the proposed update without taking the time to consider more fully the reality of the current situation.
What many people—even many people in this room—fail to understand is that the waste confidence rule is a real challenge for us because it is not simply based on the technical judgment of the NRC. Part of the Commission’s “confidence” underlying the rule must be based on events that are beyond the NRC’s control, and when those events are in flux, the Commission has to be very careful in deciding whether it can credibly say that we have “confidence” that a repository will be open on a given date or period of time.”
The point of a “waste confidence” rule is not only to regulate the spent fuel, but also to provide a legal basis for public confidence in it. The NRC’s role should be about objective safety analysis based on science and engineering data. Political expediency exposes regulatory review about a profoundly significant issue to the shifting tides of political gravitas. Washington often works this way, and this is one more instance of it.
What about the Blue Ribbon Commission?
Solutions to the issue of spent nuclear fuel won’t be decided solely at the NRC, nor with or without funding or a license application to review. A Blue Ribbon Commission, appointed by Energy Sec. Chu, will hold its first meeting March 25 & 26 in Washington, DC, to hash out policy alternatives.
It will take them 18 months to produce a draft report. Alternatives include finding another geologic repository for spent fuel, reprocessing, use of fast reactors, and a lot of other ideas. No one has a lock on the future of what this body does.
Here’s the link to the Federal Register notice about the meeting. Note there is a surface mail and email address in the notice if you want to communicate with the commission. The meeting location is the Willard Hotel at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW from 1-5 PM March 25 and 8:30 AM – 12:30 PM March 26. President Obama’s memorandum establishing the commission lays out its charter.
This blog usually doesn't pay much attention to the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, mostly because the more interesting stuff, building reactors, has so much going on. The Waste Confidence rule, and the role of the Blue Ribbon Commission, raise the level of interest. We'll re-visit both as events and circumstances develop over time.
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