Thursday, January 26, 2012

BRC releases final report on spent fuel

It calls for leadership by Congress and the White House to resolve the current impasse

Spent fuel in wet storage
The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its final report on Jan 26 to the U.S. Energy Secretary, detailing comprehensive recommendations for creating a safe, long- term solution for managing and disposing of the nation’s spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

The report is the culmination of nearly two years of work by the commission and its subcommittees, which met more than two dozen times since March 2010, gathering testimony from experts and stakeholders, as well as visiting nuclear waste management facilities both domestic and overseas.

The commission, co-chaired by former Congressman Lee H. Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, was tasked by Energy Secretary Steven Chu with devising a new strategy for managing the nation’s sizable and growing inventory of nuclear waste. Scowcroft and Hamilton said they believe the report’s recommendations offer a practical and promising path forward, and cautioned that failing to act to address the issue will be damaging and costly.

“The majority of these recommendations require action to be taken by the Administration and Congress, and offer what we believe is the best chance of success going forward, based on previous nuclear waste management experience in the U.S. and abroad,” the Commissioners wrote in a letter to Chu that accompanied the report. 
“We urge that you promptly designate a senior official with sufficient authority to coordinate all of the DOE elements involved in the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations.”

The report noted that the Obama Administration’s decision to halt work on a repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is the latest indicator of a nuclear waste management policy that has been troubled for decades and has now reached an impasse. Allowing that impasse to continue is not an option, the report said. 

“The need for a new strategy is urgent, not just to address these damages and costs but because this generation has a fundamental, ethical obligation to avoid burdening future generations with the entire task of finding a safe, permanent solution for managing hazardous nuclear materials they had no part in creating,” the Commission wrote in the report’s Executive Summary.

Three crucial elements

The strategy outlined in the Commission report contains three crucial elements.

First, the Commission recommends a consent-based approach to siting future nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities, noting that trying to force such facilities on unwilling states, tribes and communities has not worked.

Second, the Commission recommends that the responsibility for the nation’s nuclear waste management program be transferred to a new organization; one that is independent of the DOE and dedicated solely to assuring the safe storage and ultimate disposal of spent nuclear waste fuel and high- level radioactive waste.

Third, the Commission recommends changing the manner in which fees being paid into the Nuclear Waste Fund – about $750 million a year – are treated in the federal budget to ensure they are being set aside and used as Congress initially intended.

Geologic repository still needed

Spent fuel canister for dry storage
Image: World Nuclear News
The report also recommends immediate efforts to commence development of at least one geologic disposal facility and at least one consolidated storage facility, as well as efforts to prepare for the eventual large-scale transport of spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste from current storage sites to those facilities.

The report also recommends the U.S. continue to provide support for nuclear energy innovation and workforce development, as well as strengthening its international leadership role in efforts to address safety, waste management, non-proliferation and security concerns.

The Commission noted that it was specifically not tasked with rendering any opinion on the suitability of Yucca Mountain, proposing any specific site for a waste management facility, or offering any opinion on the role of nuclear power in the nation’s energy supply mix.

“These are all important questions that will engage policy makers and the public in the years ahead,” the Commission wrote. “However, none of them alters the urgent need to change and improve our strategy for managing the high-level wastes and spent fuel that already exist and will continue to accumulate so long as nuclear reactors operate in this country.”

Policy leadership needed too

What the Commission has endeavored to do is recommend a sound waste management approach that can lead to the resolution of the current impasse, and can and should be applied regardless of what site or sites are ultimately chosen to serve as the permanent disposal facility for America’s spent nuclear fuel and other high-level nuclear wastes.

The United States currently has more than 65,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel stored at about 75 operating and shutdown reactor sites around the country. More than 2,000 tons are being produced each year. The DOE also is storing an additional 2,500 tons of spent fuel and large volumes of high-level nuclear waste, mostly from past weapons programs, at a handful of government-owned sites.

In addition to co-chairmen Hamilton and Scowcroft, members of the Commission included Mr. Mark H. Ayers, the Hon. Vicky A. Bailey, Dr. Albert Carnesale, Sen. Pete Domenici, Ms. Susan Eisenhower, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Mr. Jonathan Lash, Dr. Allison M. Macfarlane, Dr. Richard A. Meserve, Dr. Ernest J. Moniz, Dr. Per Peterson, Mr. John Rowe, and Rep. Phil Sharp.

The Commission’s full report is available at:

# # #

TVA's count down to MOX fuel

The utility is assessing options to use it

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) could be one of the first nuclear utilities to accept mixed oxide fuel (MOX) from the Department of Energy (DOE) for use in its commercial nuclear reactors.

The government is building a $4.8 billion factory in South Carolina that is scheduled to start producing MOX fuel assemblies by 2016 by blending weapons grade plutonium with uranium. The resulting fuel can be swapped out for regular uranium fuel.

The government’s nonproliferation objective is to get 34 tonnes of surplus weapons-grade plutonium out of circulation forever. TVA’s objective is to get nuclear fuel that will work safely in its reactors and at a competitive price.

Read the complete details exclusively at ANS Nuclear Cafe online now.

# # #

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

NRC’s Waste Confidence Update

Is this trip necessary?
This is my updated coverage from Fuel Cycle Week, V11, N456, 1/19/12 published by International Nuclear Associates, Washington, DC

puntThe U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced in early January it is starting work on an update to the Waste Confidence decision. With the Obama administration’s successful bid to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository project, one of the agency’s key assumptions for the update is that interim storage of spent fuel will be the norm for up to 200 years after a reactor's operations come to an end.

Most recently revised in December 2010, the Waste Confidence decision states that disposal of spent fuel is technically feasible and will eventually be made available. The decision conveys the NRC's confidence that until disposal is available, the material can be managed safely under the NRC's oversight. Where or how that management takes place is not spelled out.

C.J. Milmoe, an attorney in private practice based in Arlington, VA, tells FCW the NRC's latest move to update the decision "is a punt, and it is an instance of kicking the can down the road."
Consider his point in light of the fact that the original waste confidence rule was issued in 1984, revised in 1989, and published in its latest form just a year ago.

It originally addressed the safe management of spent fuel for 30 years beyond what was then the 40-year licensed lifespan of reactors. The current rule posits 60 years of post operational safe storage. Assuming most reactors are relicensed for an additional 20 years, these sequences accumulate quickly to exceed the lifetimes of the engineers who built them.

The new NRC effort announced Jan. 3 now contemplates a timeframe that is 200 years or nearly three times longer. It will take the agency about six years to complete the required environmental impact statement and update to the Waste Confidence decision.

Paying twice for the same deal
overpaymentMilmoe wonders if all this work is even necessary. He says "spent fuel at a reactor site is a reality regardless of the time frame for the waste confidence rule. The NRC and the reactor operator are responsible for the safety of the spent fuel in perpetuity until DOE takes title to it and relocates it to an interim or permanent storage site."

Not only does Milmoe think that "the [NRC] exercise to update the Waste Confidence Rule is meaningless," he points out U.S. taxpayers are paying twice for spent fuel storage. The first payment is the more obvious of the two: those that use electricity generated by nuclear power plants pay a levy into the Nuclear Waste Fund.

The second payment is more subtle. Every time a federal claims court rules that the Energy Department has failed to meet its Nuclear Waste Policy Act responsibilities, the suing utility is awarded a judgment paid out of the U.S. government’s general revenue account.

According to The Wall Street Journal, as of last August the Nuclear Waste Fund contained $25 billion, with an estimated $16 billion in liability payments had been or will be paid to utilities. For the $41 billion involved, the U.S. could have built at least two interim storage sites and an 800 ton/year spent fuel reprocessing plant.

Failure is not an option
Lake Barrett
Lake Barrett
And Milmoe isn't the only critic who's hair spontaneously lights on fire when the subject of Yucca Mountain and the Waste Confidence Decision comes up.

Lake Barrett led the Department of Energy's Office of Civilian Nuclear Waste Management and also worked at the NRC. He told FCW the six year roadmap for revision to the Waste Confidence Rule is a case of the NRC "slow walking the issue."

The reason the agency is dragging its heels, Barrett says, is that it is a reflection of Chairman Jaczko's desire to avoid a case of the emperor not having any clothes.

There is no 'Plan B" to Yucca Mountain. For this reason, Barrett thinks updating the Waste Confidence Decision is necessary because of pending litigation.

He says there could be real potential consequences for the federal government's current state of denial. Barrett says that a credible waste confidence rule is "fundamental for the operational status of nuclear plants."

Within a year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is likely to rule on litigation over the government's failure to open Yucca Mountain. One of the potential outcomes of the case is that the court could issue an order stopping all new reactor licensing, and relicensing, until the government figures out what to do with the current inventory of spent fuel before making any more. In a worst case scenario, the entire U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors could be shut down.

Barrett says, "core reload licenses could be challenged. The motivation of these challenges will be the shut down all nuclear plants in the country."

And the NRC isn't the only group dragging its heels. Barrett fumes that the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission "has taken us backwards 25 years."

"There is no realistic path forward for dealing with spent fuel in their draft report."

The final BRC report is expected by the end of this month.

NEI's reality check
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), whose members include the nation's nuclear utilities, acknowledges that there is a possibility that the fuel will remain in storage at reactors for extended periods.

Rod McCullum, NEI's Director, Used Fuel Programs, told FCW the reason is there is considerable uncertainty about when a repository will be built, but that the organization continues to press for progress.

That does not mean the organization is endorsing an option of perpetual storage at the nations reactors.

He told FCW the industry still strongly maintains that DOE must fulfill its statutory and contractual obligations.

McCullum says NEI would prefer to see the spent fuel moved from reactors to interim storage sites and that option includes recycling.

Recycling option
spent_fuel_canisterAssuming the Waste Confidence Decision is revised with a 200 year time frame, then what? Rip Anderson, a nuclear scientist with experience at DOE laboratories, told FCW his research shows that it is safe to store spent fuel at reactors in dry casks, or other secure places, for very long periods of time.

However, he pointed out that once you start working with timeframes of hundreds of years, the spent fuel becomes less dangerous to reprocess, and he says, "we will want to reprocess it."

"The current process is not smart. It is like burning the bark off a log and then throwing away the log."

Frozen in place
Where does this leave us? Critics have used the metaphor of "kicking the can down the road," and "slow walking the issue." A better metaphor might be "frozen in place."

Nothing will change, short of a startling outcome from current litigation, until at least the end of the current decade. In terms of the extended storage scenario of up to 200 years, that might be a comfort to anyone in elected office today since by 2212 they will long since passed the baton to distant generations.

Background - What is the NRC trying to do?
NRC's process steps, which will take it to 2019 to complete, starts with a public comment period to support its update of the preliminary assumptions for an environmental impact statement (EIS). That document, when published six years from now, will contain an analysis of the effects of storing spent nuclear fuel from the nation's commercial power reactors for up to 200 years.

The scoping process for the EIS will address several storage scenarios. The alternatives include the current practice of storing spent fuel at reactors, developing regional sites or a centralized site for interim storage, or a combination of storage options and reprocessing. It assumes that the 200 year clock will start ticking sometime about 2050.

In the meantime, the NRC assumes a scenario best described in sailing terms as "steady as she goes." It means that even under an extended storage scenarios of 60 years, the NRC will continue to regulate the management of spent fuel under a program similar to the one it has in place now.

NRC's schedule to revise the Waste Confidence decision
The NRC will hold an online webinar on the update to the Waste Confidence decision on January 31, 2012 from 2:00-3:300 PM eastern time. The agency's public meeting notice has details on how to participate in the webinar.
Process Milestones
· April 2012 – publish a final report on preliminary assumptions for the EIS
· 2012-2013 – develop preliminary information for the EIS scoping process
· 2013 – Federal Register notice of intent to develop the EIS
· 2013-2016 – Develop the EIS, draft decision and possible proposed rule
· 2017-2019 - Draft EIS published, draft Waste Confidence Decision for public comment, final decision and rule.

# # #

Wasting an opportunity

The U.K. pushes back on PRISM and the U.S. gets ready to kick the spent fuel can down the road

The UK's idealistic view of how to
deal with spent fuel
One thing you can say that is the U.K. and the U.S. agree when it comes to avoiding make a decision on surplus nuclear materials. In the U.K. the government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has just turned down an offer from General Electric to use its PRISM fast reactor to burn surplus plutonium.

In the U.S next week the Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission will issue a final report that will fail to set a strategy for dealing with the nation's spent nuclear fuel.

There are different reasons for these decisions which are explored here.  What they have in common is that both governments are composed of people who outside of their offices have the usual allotments of common sense, but seem to lose their collective grip on it once in office.

Plan for Sellafield rejected

The Guardian newspaper reports Jan 24 that plans to use two 300 MW sodium cooled fast reactors to burn 82 tonnes of surplus plutonium has been rejected by the NDA.  According to the newspaper, it reviewed internal emails from the government agency.  An anti-nuclear activist obtained them under a Freedom of Information request and shared the messages with the newspaper.  The newspaper reports that the NDA's reason for rejecting the technology is that it regards it as "immature and commercially unproven."

The agency's managers also reportedly said in their electronic communications that they felt the reactor would create large amounts of plutonium contaminated waste  and increase the risk that terrorists might access it to make nuclear weapons.

Last November, GE submitted an unsolicited offer to the NDA to use its new technology which is based on the design of the Integral Fast Reactor first deployed at the Argonne National Laboratory - West site in Idaho. It was in continuous development for several decades until it was cancelled by the Clinton Administration in the mid-1990s.

The Guardian reports that in an email sent to GE on Nov 29 NDA strategy and technology director Adrian Simper said that the NDA and GE worked at an agreement but could not come to terms. Simper reportedly wrote the government "is not prepared to take technology risk on a new reactor."

In addition to technology risks, the government also reportedly demanded a price cap on the project of $3.9 billion.  It isn't clear how it came up with that number.

The NDA then sent an email to the U.K. Department of Environment and Climate Change (DECC).

It reportedly said that while the NDA had carried out a "high level assessment" of the PRISM technology, it concluded that the technology had not yet been demonstrated in a commercial setting and that it was not developed enough for the agency to commit to using it.

Perhaps most significantly, the NDA reportedly said the PRISM reactor would not be ready to run until 2050.  The agency says it wants a solution sooner than that date.

Eric Loewen, the chief engineer for the PRISM reactor, disputed that last claim pointing out the technology has 30 years of experience under its belt.  He may get a chance to make his case.  The DECC said in an email response to the NDA it remains open to "technically mature proposals."

In the meantime, the government maintains that its best option is to use the plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel.  More than 30 reactors world wide use MOX which typically, is about 5% PU-239 and the rest U238. There are differences depending on whether the plutonium is weapons grade or taken from spent fuel burned in commercial reactors.

The MOX is a good source of export revenues for the government which also may be the reason it prefers that option.

For more details on the PRISM reactor proposal see my report at ANS Nuclear Cafe published 12/22/11.

Update 01/26/12:  According to one source, the UK NDA says it is still considering GE-Hitachi fast reactors at Sellafield for plutonium disposition. 

Blue Ribbon Commission to punt

Next week you should be able to download a thick report from the Department of Energy's Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC).  It will be an instant doorstop because it won't move the government any closer to taking action on dealing with spent fuel.

Instead, due to election year politics, the BRC, which has been called the "do nothing before the 2012 election commission" will basically tune up its draft report released for comment last July.

The Blue Ribbon Commission’s draft report contained little that could not be written on the day of its first meeting in January 2010. The draft report calls for several well understood actions. 
  • Set up interim storage at one or more locations, any place but Yucca mountain. Charter an off-the-books federal corporation, funded by waste fees, to pay for management of spent fuel.
  • Find a deep geological site to put the stuff.
  • Conduct R&D on reprocessing and fast reactors.
  • Do the work consistent with the nation’s nonproliferation objectives.
The BRC noted that it sees “no unmanageable safety or security risks associated with current methods of storage” in the U.S. This is the essence of the charge the BRC has kicked the can down the road leaving nuclear utilities holding the bag, so to speak, with wet and dry at reactor storage of spent fuel.

The situation could remain unchanged for decades or longer. Spent fuel can be moved to dry cask storage after cooling off for about five years. The dry casks have expected lifetimes of up to 60 years under the NRC's current waste confidence decision.

Not satisfied with kicking cans

Dry cask storage. Image: U.S. NRC
The New York Times reports Jan 24 that a coalition of nuclear energy industry groups thinks the government can and should do better.  According to the newspaper, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main trade association of the reactor operators, was joined by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition.

All three have endorsed development of interim storage sites for spent fuel. Currently, almost all spent fuel is stored at the reactor sites where it was created in the first place.

The three groups also want a new agency such as the one proposed by now former Ohio Sen. George Voinovitch.  As an off-the-books agency, it would be funded by the $25 billion nuclear waste fund and take title to and manage the nation's inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel. Finding an interim storage site, and moving it there, would be the first order of business. Recycling the fuel could come later. 

So far the Obama administration has shown little interest in the idea.  That head in the sand stance is likely to continue until it wins a second term.  As the White House sees things, there is no sense in aggravating the voters in Nevada until after November this year.

# # # 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Safety first in Idaho

An editorial published by the Idaho Falls Post Register nails it in one

The Materials Fuel Complex (MFC)
located 26 miles west of Idaho Falls, ID
On November 8 a group of 16 workers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) Materials Fuels Complex (MFC) were contaminated by an uncontrolled release of radioactivity from plutonium reactor fuel.

An accident investigation report prepared by the Department of Energy released Jan 19 says the accident was preventable and that lab management missed several opportunities to take steps to stop something like it from injuring workers.

The report also found that the lab erred in not activating its emergency response quickly enough which may have compromised the medical treatment of the affected workers.

The 16 workers were exposed to plutonium when a container holding a fuel element was opened in the process of preparing it to be shipped to another facility. Among the 16 exposed, 13 tested positive for radioactive contamination on their clothes and two were found to have inhaled radioactive particles.  A lab spokesman said it is believed the exposure levels were "minimal" and all 16 workers were back on the job the next day with no signs of radiation sickness.

The DOE safety report says that the lab's prime contractor, the Battelle Energy Alliance (BEA), should have paid more attention to the documentation about the plutonium fuel elements and taken more precautions in guiding the work.

According to the report, knowledge of the fuel was not transferred to the lab when the Argonne National Laboratory - West site was transferred from the Office of Science to the Office on Nuclear Energy in 2005.

It noted that a 2009 White Paper by an Independent Safety Review Committee that described problems with the plutonium fuel elements went unrecognized for its significance by the current lab management.

Finally, the DOE report said the work order for the project lacked an appropriate hazard analysis and the identification of means of mitigating any problems.

The decommissioned nuclear reactor involved in the accident is part of a massive cleanup project involving spent nuclear fuel, radioactive waste, and other irradiated materials.

Government report findings
This section is taken verbatim from the report's executive summary.

Direct, Root, and Contributing Causes 
The Board determined that this accident was preventable. The Board determined that the direct cause of the accident was the cutting and handling of the plastic wrapping around the Pu fuel plate, which released the Pu contaminants. Root causes are the causal factor(s) that, if corrected, would prevent recurrence of the same (local) or similar (systemic) accidents.  The Board determined that the local root causes were:   
• BEA did not accurately analyze the Pu hazard in the safety basis and establish commensurate controls. 
• The management system lacked requirements intended to influence the decision making of the nuclear facility manager (NFM) and shift supervisor (SS), resulting in a single-point decision to cut the wrapping. The Board determined the following systemic root causes: 
• DOE-ID accepted the risk of known safety basis deficiencies and allowed continued operation of the ZPPR Facility within the framework of a multi-year safety basis upgrade plan without putting effective interim controls in place. 
• BEA continued operation of the ZPPR Facility with known safety basis deficiencies and without adequately analyzing the hazard to the worker or establishing effective work control processes.  

Words worth reading in the senior management suite

In an editorial in the Sunday, Jan 22, edition of the Idaho Falls Post Register, the newspaper's editors wrote that safety on the job has much wider implications for the future of nuclear R&D at the Idaho site.

"At the center of this community's support for the Idaho National Laboratory is a belief: that when we send out loved ones to the desert, they will come home in one piece."

And the newspaper dips into the dynamics of what should be keeping senior DOE and BEA managers awake at night.

These kinds of incidents, small as they are in terms of injuries to workers, raise the issue of "safety culture."

Specialists in the field will tell you that a series of small, even unrelated incidents, are, statistically speaking, seen as precursors to much bigger ones that can lead to catastrophic outcomes including fatalities.  Unless workers trust their management, and themselves through peer-to-peer safety awareness, accidents will happen.

". . . the Battelle Energy Alliance has a sacred duty to do everything possible to create a safety culture where there is an almost paranoid belief that if you don't pay attention to the smallest details, the worst case scenario will come true."

The newspaper points out that an excellent track record on safety is at the heart of community advocacy for current and new nuclear energy missions at the Idaho lab.

That community support translates into votes for these programs by the Idaho congressional delegation.  Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who's district includes the Idaho lab, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"The support of this community is the foundation for everything that has been built at the lab. If because of fears for worker safety, that support erodes, the whole thing might just crumble to the ground."

Cleanup milestone
The Arco desert looking southwest from MFC

The Department of Energy celebrated a milestone in December at the Idaho National Laboratory, the 20th anniversary of the start of cleanup work at the site.

The Idaho site on the Arco desert was added to the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund national priorities list in 1989 to protect the Snake River plain aquifer.

Over the past two decades, contractors have disposed of radioactive and contaminated soil, dug up buried nuclear waste and removed three nuclear reactors.

There is more work to be done a DOE spokesman told KIFI, a local TV station

"Some long-term work as far as managing spent nuclear fuel, those kinds of things," said DOE spokesman Brad Bugger. "Main thing is getting buried waste taken care of (and) closing underground storage tanks. Those should be done in the near term."

Multiple contractors have carried out the work since 1989. Bugger said the bulk of remaining work should wrap up around 2020.

# # #