Two-year hiatus in US licensing

07 September 2012

Approval of four new reactors could be delayed as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission reconsiders its confidence in long term waste management arrangements over the next 24 months.

The NRC has to develop an environmental impact statement on the storing of used nuclear fuel at power plant sites for extended periods, which will form part of a new 'waste confidence rule' fundamental to power plant licensing. The previous rule was invalidated in June by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which said the NRC should have considered the possiblity that a permanent waste disposal facility might never actually be built, as well as more factors relating to potential water leaks or fires at storage pools.

The NRC will "proceed directly" on the task, it said, noting that staff could draw on a history of similar work. Nevertheless, the NRC said it might take 24 months to develop the statement. In the meantime the lack of a robust position afforded by a waste confidence rule means that the NRC cannot issue final licenses to new nuclear power plants. This may mean postponed approval for construction and operating licenses for two reactors at Levy in Florida and another two at Lee in South Carolina, which were both expected in late 2013.

In theory the licensing hiatus also applies to final NRC decisions on licence extensions, of which applications are under consideration regarding 13 reactors. While final decisions schedules may be affected pending new waste confidence, the continued operation of the reactors should not. NRC rules say that a reactor may continue operating if its owner submitted a sufficient application to the NRC with at least five years of the original licence remaining.

Waste confidence

For the NRC to grant a new licence to a nuclear facility it must have confidence that there will be suitable storage and disposal facilities for the wastes produced by the plant during its operation. This comes down to the generic waste confidence rule which in part relies on an environmental impact assessment.

This became a live issue to US nuclear power sector in 2009 when President Barack Obama scrapped the Yucca Mountain disposal project with the help of the men he appointed to lead the NRC and the Department of Energy, Gregory Jaczko and Stephen Chu respectively. With no long term disposal plan, the NRC had to revise its waste confidence rule in 2010, deciding that storage at nuclear power plants sites would be acceptable for up to 60 years after the end of power generation. This was quickly challenged by campaigners, leading to the court decision in June.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News