NRC Addresses Spent Fuel Questions as Nuke Plant Shutdown Clock Ticks

Feb 28, 2018

Even before owner-operator Exelon Corp. announced plans to retire its Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station 14 months earlier than anticipated, there were questions from Sen. Corey A. Booker and others about storage of the spent nuclear fuel rods at the Route 9 site after the plant comes permanently offline. Among the information Booker wants to know is who is responsible for the maintenance of the dry cask storage system at the site.

“Exelon, as the current holder of the license, will be responsible for safely maintaining the on-site spent fuel storage systems,” according to a Jan. 30 letter from the NRC to Booker. “NRC regulations require licensees to manage and provide funding for the management of spent fuel as long as the spent fuel remains on site.”

It appears the spent fuel will remain on site for the foreseeable future as the federal government has failed to build a private fuel storage center. Yucca Mountain, in Utah, was selected in 2006 to store more than 44,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel but that went nowhere. The NRC has received two applications to construct and operate consolidated interim spent fuel facilities in Texas and New Mexico, according to the federal agency. However, Texas asked for its request to be suspended.

“The NRC is currently evaluating the other application for a proposed site in New Mexico to determine if it has sufficient information to begin the required safety and environmental reviews,” according to the letter to Booker.

Exelon was originally granted a 20-year license renewal by the NRC, which would allow Oyster Creek to operate as a base-load electricity generator through April 9, 2029. The nuke was later scheduled to come offline Dec. 31, 2019 in an agreement Exelon struck with the state to forgo building cooling towers at the site. It’s now scheduled for retirement before Oct. 31. The company has yet to announce how it will handle decommissioning, but it has 60 years to complete the process.

There are two options for decommissioning: decontamination and safe storage. In safe storage, a nuclear power plant is maintained as is and positioned in protective storage for an extensive period of time. Decontamination is often associated with immediate decommissioning and allows the operators to remove equipment and materials with higher levels of radiation, such as spent nuclear fuel rods.

In 2011, the NRC revised its regulations governing spent fuel rods, allowing for initial and renewal terms of up to 40 years rather than 20-year terms for dry cask storage. The regulations do not limit the number of times an applicant can request renewal of a cask or storage system certificate, provided the applicant demonstrates the effects of aging on the components are adequately addressed in accordance with the regulations.

“Any identified areas that indicate degradation would require the licensee to demonstrate that the dry storage system remains safe or pursue repair or other remedies to ensure that the spent fuel is safely confined. Because the NRC does not prescribe how licensees should take corrective action with respect to specific designs, any potential corrective actions for a dry cask storage system would be case specific,” the federal agency said. “The NRC does, however, evaluate whether the corrective actions taken are effective and sufficient to keep the spent fuel stored safely and that the licensees remain compliant with our regulatory requirements.”

Additionally, the NRC said that if a storage canister needs to be opened, Exelon must keep the fuel confined, maintain the fuel in an arrangement that does not cause a nuclear chain reaction, and shield workers and the public from radiation. Furthermore, Exelon is also responsible for all operations necessary to securing and safely maintaining the spent fuel onsite.

“Exelon must comply with the security requirements in its NRC-approved Physical Security Plan,” according to the federal agency. “The NRC regularly inspects implementation of security plans to ensure compliance with the associated requirements.”

Should the utility company choose to use contractors or subcontractors for the security work, they are still ultimately responsible for the secure and safe storage of the spent fuel.

“Exelon should not be allowed to shut the door and leave their filthy, deadly garbage behind,” Janet Tauro, New Jersey board chairwoman of Clean Water Action, said earlier this month. “Exelon’s decommissioning fund was financed through a surcharge on ratepayers’ electric bills, and that money should stay in New Jersey and be used for keeping the workers employed by taking apart the plant piece by radioactive piece.”

— Gina G. Scala







Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.