While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still considering two applications for separate federal spent nuclear fuel repositories, its transportation readiness review is expected to be available to the public no later than May.
That was just one of the takeaways from the two-day New Mexico Spent Fuel Transportation Symposium, hosted virtually by the Nuclear Energy Institute last week. The New Mexico site is proposed by Holtec International, the parent company of the shuttered Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey Township. Holtec Decommissioning International, a subsidiary of the Camden-based energy technology company, is currently decommissioning the former nuclear plant and is expected to move the remaining spent nuclear fuel into 33 dry cask storage systems at the site’s Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation pad early this year.
“An entity licensed to operate a nuclear plant is also licensed to transport spent fuel,” said David Pstrak, a member of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Safety Materials and Safeguards. “Transportation routes must meet the regulations of the (federal) Department of Transportation and be approved by the NRC.”
Radioactive material and other hazardous waste have been transported without incident across the country for decades, he said.
Regardless of the cargo, railway and other transportation companies have plans in place should an incident occur during transport, according to Anthony Ippolito of the Canadian National Railroad. He presented transportation from a railway perspective during day two of the symposium.
The NRC and federal DOT co-regulate the transportation of radioactive materials, with the NRC responsible for establishing regulations surrounding package design. Licensees are required to notify and coordinate with state, tribal and local law enforcement prior to shipment.
Holtec has petitioned the NRC to build and operate phase one of the interim repository on approximately 1,040 acres of land in Lea County, N.M. The land is owned by Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance, a public body created through a joint-powers agreement between Eddy and Lea counties as well as the cities of Carlsbad and Hobbs, located in southeast New Mexico.
In its license application for the facility, Holtec is seeking authorization to store 5,000 metric tons of uranium (MTUs) in roughly 500 spent nuclear fuel canisters under a 40-year license. However, NRC staff noted in the Oct. 9 consolidated response to hearing requests on the repository that individual canisters vary in capacity. The 500 canisters proposed by Holtec have the potential to hold up to 8,680 MTUs 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. Under its proposal, the company would expand the facility in 19 subsequent phases, each for an additional 500 canisters, to be completed over the course of 20 years.
Separately, the NRC is reviewing an application from Interim Storage Partners, a joint venture between Waste Control Specialists and Orano CIS LLC, for a 14,900-acre site in western Andrews County, Texas.
Should the NRC approve either application, or both, a nationwide repository for spent nuclear fuel would fulfill the U.S. Department of Energy’s obligation to find a long-term solution for storing the byproduct of nuclear power. Yucca Mountain in Nevada was the answer in 2002, but it was abandoned in 2010.
In the spring of 2020, the NRC affirmed a 2019 decision by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board rejecting claims that moving forward with the licensing of an interim consolidated spent nuclear fuel repository in New Mexico is unlawful under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.
Opponents of Holtec’s plan, including Beyond Nuclear, a nonprofit organization with members nationwide, said the application violates the Nuclear Waste Policy Act “because they contemplate federal ownership of spent fuel during transportation to and/or storage” at the private facilities, according to a March 2019 lawsuit the nonprofit filed against the federal government and the NRC.
Under the NWPA, the federal government cannot take title to privately produced spent nuclear fuel until a final repository is operational. However, in this ruling the NRC found the license, if approved, would authorize Holtec to take possession of the spent fuel at its site and would not violate the NWPA by transferring title to the fuel. Additionally, the license would not sanction Holtec or the Department of Energy to enter into storage contracts.
— Gina G. Scala