NRC Says No Further Studies on Expedited Transfer of Spent Fuel

In a decision issued yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agreed with the recommendation of its technical staff that expedited transfer of spent fuel to dry cask storage is not necessary.The issue, which has been given some profile in the political sphere, stems from the NRC’s post-Fukushima review. An NRC staff review team suggested that the agency consider whether movement of spent fuel from spent fuel pools to dry cask storage should be expedited for safety reasons. (The timing of movement of fuel to dry cask storage is generally implemented at plants today based on the need for additional storage space in spent fuel pools and economic considerations.) In considering the issue, the agency technical staff last year completed a comprehensive assessment and concluded that the expedited transfer of spent fuel would only produce a “minor or limited safety benefit,” and that the associated “implementation costs would not be warranted.” Therefore, it recommended that no additional generic analyses be conducted on the matter. In the action issued yesterday, the Commission agreed.

Four Commissioners (Svinicki, Apostolakis, Magwood, and Ostendorff) voted to approve the staff’s recommendation to close out this issue, while Chairman Macfarlane disapproved eliminating further generic assessment of expedited transfer as it related to “broader spent fuel management alternatives.” Commissioners Svinicki and Ostendorff stated that the entire record “overwhelmingly” supported the staff’s recommendation. On the other hand, the Chairman criticized several aspects of the study, including the fact that the only initiating event considered was a seismic event. She argued that a “more thorough analysis” would have considered the potential “of all natural and human-induced events (e.g., accidental, malevolent).” Commissioner Magwood countered this point, saying that there is no evidence that the analysis or outcome would differ for a different event (read: a pool leak is a leak, regardless of how it happens).

Although the Commission decided not to undertake additional studies on expedited transfer, it did direct the staff to undertake a handful of other, related items. These activities include modifying the Regulatory Analysis to explain why the “1x8” configuration does not provide a substantial increase in safety. If the configuration does enhance safety margin, the Commission instructed the staff to develop an Information Notice to inform licensees of the potential benefit. The Commission also directed the staff to provide an Information Paper providing, among other things, a technical overview of spent fuel rack designs used in other countries.

The accelerated movement of spent fuel from pools to casks has garnered substantial public and Congressional interest. Currently pending before the NRC is a petition for rulemaking submitted by several environmental organizations, requesting that the NRC consider information on expedited transfer to amend its spent fuel rules. Also pending on several plant-specific licensing dockets is a petition to suspend reactor licensing decisions until completion of the requested rulemaking. Additionally, as we recently discussed, Congress has introduced related legislation that would require nuclear plants to move spent fuel to dry casks before the NRC could issue exemptions from security and emergency planning requirements, and would also require licensees to move spent fuel into dry cask storage within seven years of submitting a decommissioning plan to the NRC. These bills – and the Commission’s expedited transfer decision – are sure to come up during the next Senate oversight hearing on the NRC, scheduled for June 4, 2014.