Public Comment on Interim Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository Closes

Federal Decision, Expected by 2020, Would Impact Oyster Creek Plant
By GINA G. SCALA | Aug 08, 2018

The public comment period for an interim spent nuclear fuel repository in New Mexico ended earlier this month, although the window to request a hearing on the application by Holtec International, a New Jersey-based company interested in purchasing the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station and rapidly accelerating its decommissioning process once the nuke permanently ceases operations next month, remains opened.

Neil Sheehan, public information officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Region 1 office, said the deadline to request a hearing on Holtec’s interim repository application is Sept. 14. The NRC is continuing to review that application and plans for an interim repository in Texas.

“Our preliminary review schedule for the application indicates we intend to issue a decision by July 2020, though it could be sooner if Holtec’s responses to our requests for additional information are timely and of high quality,” he said earlier this week.

According to its application, the Camden-based company is seeking to build and operate Phase 1 of the interim repository on approximately 1,040-acres of land. Holtec is currently requesting authorization to possess and store 500 canisters of spent nuclear fuel containing up to 8,680 metric tons of uranium, which includes spent uranium-based fuel from commercial nuclear reactors, as well as a small quantity of spent mixed-oxide fuel.

If the NRC issues the requested license, Holtec expects to subsequently ask for additional amendments to the initial license to expand the storage capacity of the facility, according to Sheehan. Under its proposal, the company proposes expanding the facility in 19 subsequent phases, each for an additional 500 canisters, to be completed over the course of 20 years, Sheehan said.

“Ultimately, Holtec anticipates that approximately 10,000 canisters would be stored at the facility upon completion of 20 phases,” he said, noting that each phase would require NRC review and approval.

The company did not respond to repeated attempts for additional information prior to deadline.

Holtec is known globally for its used nuclear fuel management technologies and submitted a license application for an autonomous consolidated interim facility in New Mexico to accept fuel from all nuclear plants in the U.S., including Oyster Creek. Last week, in a joint statement with Exelon Generation, the Illinois-based utility giant that owns and operates Oyster Creek, Holtec announced its intention to purchase the nation’s oldest commercial nuclear plant after it comes offline Sept. 17.

If Holtec’s application for the interim repository is approved, fuel would be sent to the site based on the established use of interim storage locations by the federal government, which would allow the company to return the full Oyster Creek site to unrestricted use once the fuel has been moved offsite.

Just last month, Exelon Generation announced plans to return a quarter, or 217 acres, of land back to Lacey Township, the nuke’s home community since it first went online Dec. 23, 1969. Holtec has yet to reveal whether it will honor that commitment, but the company will have to submit a license transfer application and a Post-Shutdown Activities Report (PSDAR) to replace the one Exelon already submitted to the NRC, according to Sheehan. That report must contain the revised plans for accelerating decommissioning at the plant, he said.

In May, Exelon announced its intention to place Oyster Creek in safe storage for nearly six decades after ceasing operations more than 14 months earlier than initially anticipated when it agreed to shut down in 2019 instead of building cooling towers on the site. A nuclear plant in safe storage is left intact or it may be partially dismantled, but the fuel is removed from the reactor vessel, radioactive liquids are drained from the systems and components then processed. The radioactive decay during safe storage lowers the level of contamination and radioactivity that must be disposed of during decontamination and dismantlement.

Under Exelon’s plans, draining the spent fuel pool was expected to begin in about 2023 with the remainder of the work, including the demolishing of the reactor building and off-gas stack, beginning in 2075. If the deal with Holtec is approved, decommissioning the plant would be completed within the first decade of Oyster Creek coming offline.

“During our recent public meeting in Lacey, Exelon said during its presentation it was in discussions with a company to handle the decommissioning of the plant,” Sheehan said, noting that there are several firms that handle that type of work, and operators of nuke plants, in general, do not have the skillset needed to dismantle a plant.

Oyster Creek operators have already moved 34 dry cask assemblies to the current site pad. Dry cask storage has been operational at the Route 9 plant for more than 15 years. It’s unknown whether Holtec, should the sale go through, will expand the site pad until a determination can be made about its New Mexico interim repository application. If expanding the site pad is part of the plan, it will take approximately one year for the construction, according to Briana DeBoer, a decommissioning inspector for the Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation and Reactor Health Physics Branch in Region 1 of the NRC’s Division of Nuclear Materials Safety, said.

“We would evaluate and be onsite when the concrete is poured,” DeBoer said, adding safety and security programs would continue until the spent fuel is removed from the site.

Still, Bruce Watson, chief of the reactor decommissioning branch of the NRC Office of Nuclear Materials and Safeguards, said the federal agency would prefer to have a federal repository for the spent nuclear fuel.

The first nuclear plant to use dry cask storage was the Surry Power Station in Virginia, dating back more than three decades. The use of dry cask canisters was thought to be a temporary solution to house spent fuel, but the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada dead-ended.

On Aug. 1, just one day after announcing its intention to buy Oyster Creek, Holtec divulged it reached a similar deal to purchase Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, Mass., and the Palisades Power Plant in Covert, Mich.

In Michigan, Entergy Corp., which owns and operates the Palisades plant, said it will keep the nuke running until 2022 before turning it over to Holtec for dealing with spent nuclear fuel. For its part, Holtec said it will begin dealing with the spent fuel at the site by 2025.

Entergy, a Louisiana-based energy magnet that has owned Pilgrim Nuclear Station since 1999, agreed to turn over its operating license to Holtec. The full decommissioning of Pilgrim will be a first for Holtec, which expects to work with Comprehensive Decommissioning International (CDI) to perform the decontamination and decommissioning of Oyster Creek. CDI is a joint venture of Holtec and SNC-Lavalin.

Before any sale is final, it must be approved by the NRC and, in the case of Oyster Creek, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities as well as other agencies.

For Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a staunch opponent of nuclear energy, the most positive development in Exelon and Holtec’s joint July 31 announcement is the expedited timeline for decommissioning and cleaning up the plant.

“This is what the Sierra Club has called for and will be safer for the community and better for the environment,” he said. “However, this sale still raises many questions about the facility as far as transparency, accountability and oversight. Our major concern with Holtec taking over the cleanup is that they may cut corners due to the limited funding. In some ways, this purchase raises more questions than answers.”

The funds from the Oyster Creek’s decommissioning trust would be transferred to Holtec upon closing and would be used by Holtec to cover the cost of the decommissioning. The trust fund was established decades ago to pay for decommissioning, and no additional funds from utility customers would be required.

The cost of decommissioning Oyster Creek, the oldest commercial nuclear power plant in the nation, is $1.4 billion. Exelon has already stashed away approximately $913 million, as of the end of 2017, in a trust to pay for the cost of decommissioning.

“Any license amendments that have been approved at the time a license is transferred would remain in effect,” Sheehan said.

There are currently six U.S. nuclear power plants in active decommissioning and another 14 units in safe storage. Exelon began planning for decommissioning Oyster Creek in 2014, according to the NRC.

“It would be speculative for us to say what might happen if the sale is not approved,” Sheehan said, “but one option would be the long-term storage plan already proposed by Exelon.”

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