Nuclear Fuels
May 18, 2009

NRC's marching orders clear, Yucca licensing must go on: official

BYLINE: Maureen Conley, Washington

SECTION: Pg. 12 Vol. 34 No. 10

LENGTH: 2578 words

The NRC's marching orders on the Yucca Mountain project are clear, a senior staffer said last week. As long as the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is in effect and NRC has the necessary funds, the agency will continue its review of DOE's repository license application, Aby Mohseni said May 12.

"Clearly, the law continues to be the law of the land," said Mohseni, who is the deputy director of NRC's high-level waste repository safety and licensing division. Mohseni made the comment in an interview five days after President Barack Obama issued a fiscal 2010 budget request aimed at shutting down the DOE repository project at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The Obama administration is seeking $197 million for the repository project next fiscal year. Roughly $116 million of that money would be used by DOE for work associated with NRC's review of the department's repository license application; $5 million would go to a blue-ribbon commission that will evaluate waste management alternatives to a Yucca Mountain repository.

NRC is seeking $56 million for repository-related work next fiscal year. The request is $3 million below the agency's FY-09 budget ? which involved a $49 million appropriation from the Nuclear Waste Fund and $10 million carried over from FY-08. The amount and pace of the work NRC carries out next fiscal year, which begins October 1, will depend on the level of funding received, Mohseni said.

Meanwhile, the NRC licensing review of DOE's 8,600-page repository license application is moving into a more work-intensive mode. NRC licensing boards last week admitted eight parties and a record 299 contentions to the agency's licensing proceeding.

"We've got a license to fight," Bob Halstead, Nevada's spent fuel transportation specialist, said last week. Halstead said he thought it was important that Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, or ASLB, administrative judges noted in a May 11 order that offsite transport of utility spent fuel, not just the construction of a rail spur and roads to Yucca Mountain, should be part of the National Environmental Policy Act process.

Bruce Breslow, executive director of the Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects, which opposes DOE's plan to build a repository at Yucca Mountain, called the ASLB order "a big win for the state." He said that DOE had submitted a lengthy filing to the board opposing each of the state's 229 contentions, 222 of which were admitted.

"The enormity of the win on the issues for Nevada puts the writing on the wall that this will be a very difficult licensing process for DOE," Halstead said.

Normally, at this stage in an application review, staffing would be increased, Mohseni said. He said the division won't increase its staffing beyond the roughly 50 people already working on the technical side of the review, noting that staffing level would be sufficient. But whether it is decreased could depend on the FY-10 spending level set by Congress.

Breslow's agency, which has four full-time state employees and contractor specialists, is looking for ways to stretch its funding. The Nevada agency's expenses during the repository licensing process have been estimated at $7 million a year, which doesn't include costs incurred from state lawsuits associated with the DOE program that are pending. Federal oversight funds, which the state can use to help cover costs of its participation in the licensing process, would drop from this year's level of $5 million to $3.2 million under the administration's budget request. Possible state funding has been estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million.

"Until the license application is withdrawn or the Nuclear Waste Policy Act is changed, we consider the project to be still moving forward ? like a zombie. It didn't die," Breslow said. The state, he said, will not stop fighting until the Yucca Mountain program is terminated.

Both Mohseni and Breslow said there are valuable insights their respective agencies can gain from the Yucca Mountain program even if that repository is never built.

"Tremendous insights" have been gained from the decades of scientific work at Yucca Mountain, Mohseni said, who called the information during that time "useful." Waste management programs in Europe are looking into the technical challenges, he said. But Mohseni also said that he believed that what NRC learned about the processes and methodologies involved in such a long-term project would be valuable to the agency.

Breslow pointed to transparency as an important lesson coming from the country's experience with the Yucca Mountain program. "We believe at some point there will be a need for a permanent repository," Breslow said. "Whatever the nation looks for in a repository, the process needs to be transparent."

He added that one of the things that crippled the Yucca Mountain program from the beginning was the country's failure to take into account the social and institutional aspects of finding a way to safely manage nuclear waste.

In a May 8 letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Breslow said it "will be extremely important to have prominent experts from the social sciences involved in the Blue Ribbon Commission that is being formed. These should be experts who have studied the current federal waste program and the Yucca project and are familiar with the social, political, institutional context that has been an integral part of it," he said.

"Yucca Mountain is failing not just because the science is in question, but because science was subjugated to political judgments and decisions," he told Chu.

Amendments in 1987 to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act narrowed the DOE repository program from three potential sites to Yucca Mountain as the country's lone candidate for a high-level nuclear waste repository after eliminating Hanford, Washington and Deaf Smith County, Texas from the list of candidates.

Former Senator J. Bennett Johnston, who was the Democratic chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at the time, was the act's chief architect. He stressed that under his bill the energy secretary would pick the country's sole candidate; the winnowing was aimed at curtailing program costs, he said. Yucca was directly named during the conference committee with the House on the bill, he said, noting that then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Texas and then-House Majority Leader Tom Foley of Washington state, both Democrats, didn't want the disposal facility in their states. Some congressional staffers quietly acknowledged that at the time. Johnston's bill contained provisions barring the siting of a repository near a main body of drinking water or over a major aquifer, criteria that eliminated the sites in Washington state and Texas. That doesn't lessen the fact, Johnston said, that Yucca Mountain is a good site.?Elaine Hiruo, Washington

NRC notified ZionSolutions May 4 that it has approved the transfer of Exelon's operating licenses for the permanently shutdown Zion-1 and -2 to the EnergySolutions subsidiary. The transfer was sought to allow EnergySolutions to manage the 10-year decommissioning process and transfer the plant's inventory of spent fuel to dry cask storage. After completion of the transfer, EnergySolutions would transfer the property and the spent fuel back to Exelon. The utility expects the proposal to accelerate the decommissioning process and reduce the costs.

Exelon applied for the transfer in January 2008. Under the deal, ZionSolutions would acquire the plant's assets, lease the land from Exelon, take possession of the used fuel, become the Zion licensee, and assume full responsibilities for licensed activities, as well as all liabilities and obligations for radiological decommissioning and site restoration. Exelon would retain title to the land and certain improvements, the spent fuel, and all Greater-than-Class-C low-level waste, or LLW. ZionSolutions will use Exelon's decommissioning trust fund to finance the project.

The plan provides additional financial assurance in the form of contractual performance guarantees, a $200 million letter of credit, and guaranteed capacity in EnergySolution's LLW disposal facility, even if ZionSolutions were to default on the project. The parties said last fall that the turmoil in the financial markets would delay the decommissioning project and that the parties would not close on the transfer of assets until the markets stabilize and sufficient value is available in the decommissioning trust fund to finance it. They had been scheduled to close the deal last December, before the decommissioning fund lost much of its value due to market declines. The fund's balance, reported to be about $912-million in December 2007, had dropped to about $727-million as of November 30, 2008, according to information Exelon provided to NRC staff. An NRC official said both the order approving the transfer and the agreement between the parties would need to be extended if they are unable to close on the deal by year-end.

The NRC staff notified commissioners in February that it planned to approve the license transfer request, as it was the first time a permanently shutdown reactor license would be transferred for the purpose of decommissioning. The staff's paper to the commission, Secy-09-0019, said the staff's review found ZionSolutions had the financial and technical qualifications to possess, maintain and decommission the facility. But an NRC official said last week that the amendments supporting the transfer will not be signed until the licensee notifies NRC that the transfer is imminent, which will allow any necessary minor changes to be made.

The license transfer order is conditioned on ZionSolutions providing written proof of the letter of credit, the disposal capacity guarantee, and appropriate insurance coverage. ZionSolutions will be licensed only to possess radioactive material in connection with maintaining safe storage of the plant, maintaining the spent fuel pool, transferring the fuel and maintaining the dry cask storage facility, and completing decommissioning.

The Zion-1 and -2 PWRs were licensed to operate in 1973 and were permanently shut in 1997 and 1996, respectively. The units were placed in long-term storage, with decommissioning and dismantlement to begin in 2015. ZionSolutions expects to be able to complete decommissioning work in 10 years, rather than the 13 years Exelon would have taken. ZionSolutions estimates the work to cost $990 million, less than the $1.138 million Exelon had budgeted.

NRC staff asked the commissioners April 27 to approve a draft rule that would make changes to the 10 CFR Part 72 spent fuel storage regulations. If approved, the staff would publish proposed amendments to the rule in the Federal Register for 75 days of public comment. The staff outlined the proposed changes in Secy-09-0069, released publicly May 12.

The proposed changes include clarifying and extending to as many as 40 years the term limits for dry storage cask certificates of compliance, or COCs, and site-specific licenses for independent spent fuel storage installations, or Isfsis. Under the current regulations, license terms are limited to 20 years, though two utilities have received commission approval for 40-year license extensions. The rule would also impose the same aging management requirements on general licenses that were imposed on the renewed site-specific licenses.

The new rules would allow cask users to implement changes authorized by COC amendments to casks that were loaded under an earlier version of the COC. That issue surfaced several years ago, when a cask vendor sought and received an amendment to the monitoring and surveillance requirements for a cask system that was no longer being deployed. The amendment was sought to ease the burden on utilities already using the system. After approving the request, NRC staff said the amended requirements could not be used because the loaded casks were bound by the terms, conditions and technical specifications of the COC applicable to a cask at the time it was loaded. That decision meant that any cask user seeking to make use of later amendments for previously loaded casks could only do so after receiving an NRC exemption.

In its memo to the commissioners, the staff said the rule changes would provide consistency between the requirements for site-specific Isfsi licenses and for using COCs under general license provisions, and would improve the regulatory efficiency of 10 CFR Part 72.

NRC told NAC International this month its application to clarify requirements for Boral qualification testing for the Magnastor spent fuel storage system appears complete. It said the application could be approved by November 30, as NAC had requested in its March 26 submittal. In a May 6 letter, NRC said the staff could issue a request for additional information, or RAI, by August 7. If no RAI is needed, the letter said, NRC could issue a draft safety evaluation report and certificate of compliance before the November 30 target.

NAC notified NRC in February that, during production of the lead test basket for the Magnastor system, it discovered there should have been a separate section for Boral in the neutron absorber acceptance and testing program requirements. These requirements are incorporated into the technical specifications. The program currently requires Boral to undergo the same level of testing as other neutron absorbers. But current NRC practice is to give only 75% credit in criticality analyses for the boron in Boral, while other neutron absorbers are credited for 90% of the boron present. NRC has drafted, but not yet published, staff guidance acknowledging that Boral does not require the same level of testing as other borated aluminum neutron absorbers.

The amendment would create separate requirements for the manufacture, sampling, wet chemistry testing, and yield strength testing of Boral. The Magnastor COC became effective February 4 (NF, 9 Feb., 11). NAC also plans to submit an amendment later this year to authorize storage of damaged fuel in the Magnastor and an application to certify a Magnastor transportation cask.

NRC's division of spent fuel storage and transportation, or SFST, will not request additional information from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, on changes requested to the site-specific license for dry storage at Rancho Seco, an agency official said last week. SFST has begun preparing a safety evaluation report approving the changes, the official said. SFST has also determined no formal environmental review is required and could issue the amended license next month.

SMUD is seeking to amend the Rancho Seco facility's technical specifications to account for six assemblies loaded into in five different casks that the utility now believes should have been classified as damaged but were not. SMUD finished loading its entire inventory of 493 spent fuel assemblies into the Nuhoms 24PT system in 2002.

Separately, NRC staff determined that the requested changes can be made without conducting a review of the environmental impacts of the changes because they qualify for categorical exclusion under 10 CFR Part 51.22(c)(11) criteria on environmental reviews. NRC expects to publish a Federal Register notice on the license amendment and its exclusion from the environmental review requirements as soon as the SER has been completed and all requirements for withholding proprietary information have been met.

Maureen Conley, Washington