Reader's Note

    In May, 1996, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) published a Notice in the Federal Register seeking comments on a proposal to privatize the waste acceptance, storage and transportation system for spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste (HLW). In December, 1996, DOE followed up that Notice by issuing for comment a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) that would be used to solicit bids from private contractors to operate the "privatized" system.

    The draft RFP, which is available on the DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Home Page at contemplates that DOE will employ up to four regional contractors and delegate to them most of the decision-making and operational responsibilities associated with picking up spent fuel and HLW at generator sites (i.e. commercial nuclear power Plants and DOE facilities), providing all necessary hardware, carrying out the various activities needed to transport the material (mode and route selection, emergency preparedness, interactions with states and communities, etc.), and ultimately delivering the spent fuel and HLW to a repository or interim storage facility.



Submitted By

The Nevada Agency for Nuclear Projects

May 13, 1997


1.0   General Comments

The element of the federal high-level radioactive waste (HLW) program that has the greatest potential to substantively impact the nation as a whole is the transportation of spent fuel and high-level waste from sites throughout the country to a proposed repository or interim storage facility in Nevada. Even under the most ideal circumstances, such transportation will be an extraordinarily complex undertaking, involving 43 states and hundreds of communities along potential highway and rail shipping routes. The unprecedented shipping campaign needed to support the proposed federal HLW program would require hundreds and perhaps thousands of shipments each year on a continual basis for more than 30 years. The uncertainties and risks inherent in this effort will be considerable.

The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) proposal to privatize the entire transportation system, from the acceptance of waste at reactor sites through the disposition of the waste at a repository or interim storage location, has the potential to exacerbate risks, magnify uncertainties, and seriously inhibit state and local planning and risk management initiatives. The current privatization proposal would create a "market driven" transportation system managed by as many as four different regional contractors. Findings from the State of Nevada's transportation oversight and independent research have shown that DOE has consistently underestimated the risks and difficulties associated even with a more centralized (and more easily managed and coordinated) shipment system that was considered prior to the current move towards privatization.(1) Under the "market driven" system being proposed, it is to be expected that safety considerations will routinely come into conflict with cost, schedule, and related factors, potentially adding to risks and making it extremely difficult to manage program uncertainties to the extent that will be necessary.


2.0   Retrenchment and Regression Rather than Improvement

The privatization proposal as articulated in the draft RFP represents a major - and potentially damaging - departure from over 15 years of incremental progress DOE has made in working with states and tribes in planning for the safe transportation of spent nuclear fuel (SNF). The transportation of SNF and other high-level radioactive waste to a repository or other storage facility will affect hundreds of cities and thousands of communities in 43 states for a period that spans decades. For DOE to simply discard a centralized and participatory planning process for one that relies solely on arbitrary and market-driven contractual decision-making by as many as four different contractors is inappropriate and unacceptable.

Until publication of the initial Federal Register Notice on Waste Acceptance, Storage, and Transportation in May, 1996, DOE had made commitments to the states that it would, among other things, engage in a national route selection process, take responsibility for shipment modes and route decisions, move toward full-scale cask testing, and develop and implement a coordinated program of preparedness and emergency response training and assistance. This draft RFP is a major step backward and threatens to undermine the good work that DOE staff has done in establishing communication with potential corridor states and tribes. Viewed in combination with the devastating reductions in DOE assistance for cooperative agreement groups, such as the Western Interstate Energy Board (WIEB) and other equivalent groups in other regions, the May, 1996 Notice and the draft RFP signal a continuing and disturbing retrenchment in DOE's willingness to work with states and tribes in resolving difficult issues like route and mode selection.


3.0   Some DOE Responsibilities Cannot and Should Not be Delegated

The draft RFP exceeds what Congress intended when it inserted language into the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987 instructing DOE to "utilize private industry to the fullest extent possible" in implementing various provisions of the law. As Nevada and other western, midwestern, southern, and eastern states have historically insisted, the delegation of responsibility to carriers for making crucial HLW transportation decisions involving mode and route choices, selection of storage and transportation canisters, emergency preparedness planning and implementation, cask testing, and other decisions is unacceptable. Such decisions are clearly DOE responsibilities and aspects of the high-level waste program that DOE must accept if there is to be any effective planning and coordination of Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) shipments and if shipment safety is to be assured.

Leaving the decisions like mode and route decisions to carriers, for example, invites confusion, conflict, and increased public distrust in the entire program. It will also make it extremely difficult for states, tribes, and communities along potential transportation routes to plan for emergency response and readiness since DOE is proposing as many as four different contractors to be responsible for different geographical regions of the country. This means that states and tribes would have to work with multiple contractors on the route identification process.

Such a process would be unwieldy and likely not result in the establishment of route preferences in time to implement adequate emergency response and preparedness capabilities.

Likewise, delegating the responsibility for selection of storage and transportation canister types to the private contractor (who will make the decision largely - if not entirely - on the basis of cost) invites unnecessary complexity throughout the waste acceptance, storage, and transportation system. It also add greatly to the many uncertainties in the HLW program, complicates repository and/or interim storage operations, and could actually increase the overall cost of the program in the long run. There is also no provision for full-scale testing of any casks used to transport spent fuel and high-level waste, something advocated for safety and public acceptance reasons by multi-state regional organizations such as the WIEB, the Southern States Energy Board and others. Under DOE's privatization proposal, there is no incentive for a for-profit contractor to require such tests on its own.


4.0   Increasing Uncertainty and Complicating the System

The draft RFP, if implemented, could have the effect of further compartmentalizing the transportation of SNF and separating transportation operations from the extensive preparation that will be required to assure the safe and uneventful shipment of these materials in unprecedented numbers, over unprecedented distances, and for an unprecedented shipping campaign duration. For example, the approach embodied in the RFP, whereby each Regional Servicing Agent would be responsible for independently dealing with individual states, tribes, and communities, will make it difficult or impossible to provide Section 180 (c) assistance effectively and in the time frames necessary for adequate training and preparation.

The proposed RFP also sets up a "system" of waste management that is uncoordinated and likely to involve multiple types of transportation and storage containers, further complicating operations throughout the system. Such a process rewards fragmentation and prohibits any standardization of storage and transport components that could bring significant efficiency to the entire program. One of the attractive features of DOE's now-defunct multiple purpose canister (MPC) initiative was that it contributed a certain stability to the transportation planning process by reducing some of the uncertainties about shipping container characteristics and performance. The system reflected in the draft RFP eliminates any incentives for coordination and standardization and will likely result in costs, rather than safety and risk reduction, being the deciding factor in the selection of transport and storage technologies. By leaving key decisions to contractors and shippers, the draft RFP would also abandon key program policies, such as maximum use of rail and high-capacity casks to reduce shipment numbers, and very likely result in greater reliance on truck transport, thereby increasing the number of shipments and the resulting impacts. For example, an analysis prepared for the State of Nevada by Planning Information Corporation found that increasing the truck share of the modal mix from 12% to 35% would increase the number of truck shipments from 6,200 to at least 31,400 (assuming that all shipments use new, high-capacity casks such as the GA 4/9) and to as many as 79,300 shipments if current generation truck casks are used.(2)


5.0   Ignoring Risk, Public Acceptance, and the Need for Extra-regulatory Measures

Both the May, 1996 Federal Register Notice and the draft RFP are notable for the almost total absence of any substantive discussion of safety, risk, and public acceptance - concepts that are central to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and that have historically guided how commercial utilities, the federal government, and the states should approach the problem of spent fuel and HLW transportation. DOE naively assumes that simply requiring contract carriers to adhere to the letter of existing U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and NRC regulations governing high-level radioactive waste shipments will be adequate to assure the safety and public acceptance of the shipping campaign. The introductory statement by former Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM) Director Daniel Dreyfus that accompanied the draft RFP clearly states that "DOE's proposed approach is to minimize DOE involvement [in managing risks] and, to the maximum extent practicable, rely on established and functioning external regulatory authorities."(3)

It has long been accepted by states and regional organizations such as the Western Interstate Energy Board, that extra-regulatory measures and commitments will be necessary to assure the safe and uneventful shipment of spent fuel and HLW in the quantities and over the distances and long time span required for NWPA shipments. Until the publication of the May, 1996 Notice, DOE, in its interactions with states and regional groups, appeared also to accept this reality. In fact, the precedents established by DOE in planning for shipments of transuranic waste to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico and in carrying out the recent shipments of radioactive cesium and spent fuel from foreign research reactors reflect an acceptance of the need to go beyond what is minimally required to assure safety and gain public acceptance.


6.0   Complicating Coordination of Commercial Spent Fuel Shipments with Other DOE HLW and Radioactive Materials Shipments

The system reflected in the draft RFP would contain no provision for coordinating spent fuel shipments occurring over the 30 year operational life of a repository with other contemporaneous DOE radioactive materials shipping campaigns. Many communities located along major transportation corridors could be exposed not only to thousands of OCRWM shipments of spent fuel and HLW, but also to thousands more shipments of radioactive materials from other DOE shipping campaigns. For example, DOE-owned spent fuel will need to be shipped (some by truck and some by rail) to a future repository site from 3 former nuclear defense sites in two different regions (as delineated in the draft RFP). DOE is also responsible for commercial spent fuel and high-level waste shipments originating from West Valley, New York. Such shipments will crisscross and be contemporaneous with other shipments of spent fuel destined for a repository, requiring corridor and host states to deal not only with four regional contractors, but also with shippers and carriers employed for these other campaigns.

Transuranic waste shipments from sites around the country bound for the WIPP could also, according to DOE's schedule, occur at the same time that OCRWM spent fuel and HLW shipments to a repository or interim storage facility are underway. The WIPP shipping campaign, which is being planned and managed by another part of DOE, will unavoidable utilize many of the same routes used for the OCRWM shipments. Under current plans, there could be as many as 30,000 truck shipments to WIPP, an average of about three shipments a day, every day for 30 years, during the same time frame as the OCRWM shipments. However, the draft RFP makes no provision for coordination of such shipments or for assessing and mitigating the cumulative impacts that could result.


7.0   Concluding Comments

The notion, represented by the draft RFP and the privatization underpinnings motivating it, that turning over the system for waste acceptance, storage, and transportation for spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste almost entirely to a series of private sector super-contractors will serve the public interest, reduce costs, and be at least neutral with respect to risk and public safety is misguided at best. Effective and efficient use of private industry in assisting the federal government to implement aspects of the system is appropriate and necessary. However, the wholesale delegation of responsibilities embodied in the May, 1996 Federal Register Notice and the draft RFP goes beyond what is reasonable and has the potential to increase risk throughout the system, stimulate public opposition rather than acceptance, make coordination among states and regions markedly more difficult if not impossible, and result in increased program costs when mitigation measures are found to be necessary in the future.

The State of Nevada urges the Department of Energy to withdraw the draft RFP and resume its interactions with states, tribes, multi-state regional groups, and other stakeholders regarding the necessary elements of a safe, publically acceptable, and workable transportation system for spent fuel and HLW. The rush to embrace the perceived panacea of privatization is unwarranted and potentially destructive of the very system DOE is seeking to build.

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