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New U.S. Nuclear Regulator Says Spent Fuel a Top Priority

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New U.S. Nuclear Regulator Pledges Action on Waste Disposal
Cooling towers emit steam at the Exelon nuclear energy plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. U.S. plants keep used fuel rods on site, in water pools or dry casks, because of a lack of permanent storage. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Aug. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The new chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said she plans to concentrate on the disposal of spent atomic fuel, an issue that is holding up decisions on power-plant licenses.

Allison Macfarlane, in her first news conference since taking over at the NRC on July 9, today also called on Congress and the White House to identify a permanent disposal site for spent fuel from the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors.

The NRC this month suspended final decisions on licenses for power plants until it completes a reassessment of risks related to storing spent atomic fuel. U.S. plants keep used fuel rods on site, in water pools or dry casks, because of a lack of permanent storage. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, an initial candidate for a permanent nuclear-waste dump, was rejected by the Obama administration following opposition from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.

“We are paying more attention to spent nuclear fuel,” Macfarlane told reporters. “We know this is a pressing issue.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled on June 8 that the NRC’s rules on permanent storage of nuclear waste failed to fully evaluate risks and new standards must be drafted.

The spent fuel, whether kept in pools or dry storage containers, is managed safely and securely, Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Washington-based trade group Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an e-mail.

License Reviews

Following the court ruling, the NRC put the final decisions on licenses on hold, as it keeps reviewing applications including Entergy Corp.’s one to renew a license for the Indian Point power plant north of New York City and Duke Energy Corp.’s application for construction and operation of reactors in Levy County, Florida.

Macfarlane, a geologist and a former environmental-science professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said the commission is assessing a report by its staff on waste-disposal options and promised to act promptly on the proposals. It is also researching an expanded use of dry-cask storage, something the industry opposes. She cited waste disposal, along with improved communication with the public, safety, and geological issues, including earthquake risks, as her top priorities.

Geology ‘Matters’

“Geology clearly matters,” she said today. “If that wasn’t the main lesson of Fukushima, I don’t know what was.”

U.S. nuclear power plants started reassessing the risks related to seismic hazards before the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan, triggered by an earthquake and tsunami, on March 11, 2011. The disaster led the NRC to require additional analysis of power plants in the U.S.

The outcome of those assessments may lead to additional costs for the operators, according to the new chief.

“You can make a lot of adjustments to plants to upgrade seismic stability and flooding stability,” she said. “You can take measures to make sure that you mitigate the potential risks that are coming.”

Results of the seismic risk analyses are expected in the second half of 2013, according to Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Safety Margins

“We do know that our facilities are designed and built very robustly and that they have considerable safety margins in place,” Kerekes said.

Macfarlane praised the performance of Dominion Resources Inc.’s North Anna power station in Virginia during a 5.8-magnitude temblor on Aug. 23.

“The North Anna plant actually rode out that earthquake very well,” she said. “It did that because it had additional safety margins.”

Macfarlane recalled the picture of helicopters spraying water over the spent fuel pools at the Fukushima plant after the 2011 earthquake, to prevent the water levels from falling and triggering radiation release. She said the accident encouraged her to look closer at using a system of dry casks instead of water pools to store spent fuel at plants.

“One of the Fukushima activities that the NRC is taking on is doing another look at this issue: Should there be an accelerated transfer of spent fuel from the pools to the dry casks?” she said. “The industry has said, well, if you push this, there will be more radiation exposure to workers. We have to understand that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Katarzyna Klimasinska in Washington at kklimasinska@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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