Hearings - Testimony
Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety
Oversight Hearing on NRC’s Regulatory Responsibilities and Capabilities for Long- and Short- term Spent Fuel Storage Programs
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Victor Gilinsky
Independent Energy Consultant

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:


Thank you for inviting me to comment on the bills before you that deal with spent fuel. I’ve been involved with nuclear waste issues from 1971 when I was on the staff of the Atomic Energy Commission. I later served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—nominated first by President Ford and later by President Carter. Since then I’ve been an independent consultant. In the past few years I have assisted the State of Nevada on Yucca Mountain issues.

I would like to address briefly three NRC-related items—interim spent fuel storage, the NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule, and the administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership:


No matter what you think about Yucca Mountain’s future, it seems inescapable that we are going to need a lot of spent fuel storage. The generating companies are preparing themselves by building installations at their sites to store spent fuel in dry casks. The technology is straightforward and the licensing of these sites does not appear to strain the NRC very much.

It would be good to also have regional storage sites for overflow capacity, to collect the spent fuel from shut down reactors, and eventually to collect all the spent fuel under a dedicated storage management. Senator Domenici’s bill allows for such central facilities.

In the short run, for safety and security, we should move spent fuel from reactor pools into dry casks as soon as it cools sufficiently. Senator Reid's bill addresses this point.

All this would make sense even if you thought Yucca Mountain was on track. Experience, however, suggests it isn't. DOE's projected opening date has slipped seven years since Congress voted on the Yucca Mountain Resolution four years ago. Last week the Interior Secretary vetoed the Private Fuel Storage facility in Utah in part because he concluded it was not prudent to rely on Yucca Mountain opening.


This lead directly to the second item—the NRC’s Waste Confidence Rule.

The current version of the rule, adopted in 1990, says the NRC is confident that a geologic repository will open by 2025. The function of the rule was to protects reactor licensing from challenges based on the waste issue, although as we approach 2025 that role becomes more doubtful.

There is a more serious problem. In 1990 the NRC said if Yucca Mountain failed to get licensed there would be time to find another site before 2025. Today that claim is no longer tenable. So, in effect, the rule now says NRC is confident Yucca Mountain will be licensed. In other words, NRC is prejudging the case.

Nevada petitioned NRC to eliminate the date, assuming it can do so responsibly. The Commission refused to act, even though a change would also benefit its power reactor licensees. In any event, Nevada appealed, and the case is being argued today before the Court of Appeals.

Some of the bill before you would have Congress make the change for the NRC. Because any such change implies a safety judgment, I believe the more responsible course is for the NRC itself to do it through rulemaking.


My third item concerns GNEP, the administration’s grand plan for developing technology to transform the future of nuclear power world-wide. It is not likely to demand much in the way of NRC resources for a long time.

That may change, however, if DOE pursues its latest idea to “fast track” the GNEP demonstration plants. DOE acts as if it is sure of success, but I have to say I don't know of any example of DOE developing a major technology to full scale and then transferring it successfully to industry. GNEP contains concepts that might be useful if they worked, but they are a long way from being practicable.

GNEP reminds me of the AEC’s fast breeder program of the 1960s. In its eagerness to jump to the next stage the Commission neglected basic technical issues that were vital to nuclear power's success in the short run. That neglect led to the problems of the 1970s, and was a significant contributor to the Three Mile Island accident.

The nuclear industry learned from the accident to focus on running its plants safely and economically. It also learned that useful technology advances in careful incremental steps. DOE and the national laboratories haven't learned that lesson and are impatient to jump ahead to advanced reprocessing and fast breeders. At a minimum, DOE should have to pass NRC safety licensing for any substantial demonstration facilities. That will slow them down, but it will also help to keep DOE's feet on the ground.


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