Weapons Complex Monitor Vol. 29 No. 1
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Article 3 of 13
January 05, 2018

DOE Must Prepare for Long-Term Spent Fuel Management: Expert Report

By Chris Schneidmiller

The U.S. Department of Energy must be prepared to safely manage its 2,510-metric-ton stockpile of spent nuclear reactor fuel for decades until it can be placed in a permanent repository, according to new findings from a federal panel of experts.

“While disposal of spent nuclear fuel (SNF) and high-level radioactive waste (HLW) in a deep geologic repository remains the ultimate objective of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear waste management program, there is significant uncertainty about when such a repository will be constructed in the United States,” the independent Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board said in a Dec. 29 report to the Energy Department and Congress. “Until a viable disposal solution is found, it is necessary and important that DOE manage its SNF in a manner that does not impede its eventual disposal.”

The DOE-managed spent nuclear fuel stockpile is primarily the byproduct of defense operations such as naval nuclear reactors and production of plutonium. That accounts for 2,128 metric tons of heavy metal of the DOE holding, with 110 metric tons derived from DOE research and development and 272 metric tons from commercial nuclear operations.

The Energy Department’s Hanford Site in Washington state stores 2,130 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel, with much smaller amounts divided between three other locations: DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory (325 metric tons of heavy metal), the department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina (30 metric tons), and the Fort St. Vrain nuclear power plant in Colorado (15 metric tons).

There are over 250 types of spent fuel within the DOE stockpile, creating a host of challenges in managing the material, the report says. For example: some of the used fuel has a high concentration of fissile material that heightens the potential for nuclear criticality – an uncontrolled nuclear fission chain reaction. The DOE spent fuel is also “more damaged” than commercial used fuel, and less is known about the level of degradation and possibility of additional degradation of the material.

“The diverse physical and chemical properties of DOE SNF, and the degraded condition of some of it, drive the technical challenges associated with DOE’s SNF management activities,” the board said. “In general, these challenges are increasing with time because of deleterious aging effects” on the fuel and the cladding in which the fuel is encased.

These technical challenges are compounded by legal agreements and regulations, such as the 2035 deadline for all DOE spent fuel to be removed from Idaho, according to the report.

In the 215-page document, the product of three years of work, the board broke down the long list of challenges into three areas: aging management, to curb effects of degradation in the spent fuel; packaging, related to the DOE standardized storage canister that remains in development for eventual use in shipping the waste to the repository; and disposal, including processes that could occur after the material is interred.

Ultimately, the DOE used nuclear fuel is required by law to be interred in a permanent disposal facility, alongside other high-level radioactive waste and more than 70,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel now stored at nuclear power plants around the country.

Under the 1987 amendment to the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, that repository is to be built under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But after more than three decades, the facility has not yet been licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, much less built, and it remains massively unpopular in Nevada. The Obama administration abandoned the project, but it has gained new – if tentative – life under the Trump administration.

The administration has requested $150 million in fiscal 2018 to resume the licensing process for Yucca Mountain at DOE and the NRC, and legislation from Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) is intended to drive the project forward. But the future of both efforts remains unclear.

The House signed off on the Yucca funding, but Senate appropriators provided no money for the project in an energy funding bill that is still waiting for a floor vote. Meanwhile, the federal government has for more than three months of this fiscal year operated on a series of short-term budgets that provide nothing for Yucca Mountain.

Shimkus’ “Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017” is still waiting for a House floor vote after passing out of committee last summer. Insiders say the vote could happen early this year, but there has been no formal word on the schedule.

In any case, it will be years if not decades before a final resting place for U.S. spent nuclear fuel and high-level waste is built.

The Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board issued a six-part set of recommendations for management of the DOE spent fuel in the interim. While there are no crucial problems that must be addressed immediately, the federal government must manage the aging waste and prepare it for eventual permanent disposal, according to board Chair Jean Bahr, a hydrogeology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“What you do now is going to make things easier in the long run,” Bahr told RadWaste Monitor. “You need to know what condition the fuel is in to make any future plans.”

Among the recommendations:

The Energy Department should prepare and enact programs to manage degradation of spent fuel, the materials the waste is held in, and spent fuel facilities in anticipation of decades more of storage.

New DOE storage systems, including the standardized canister, should feature the capability to measure and monitor the status of spent nuclear fuel.

The department’s Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) should enact current Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management waste acceptance system requirements to help ensure DOE-NE spent fuel can be placed into geologic disposal.

Board members and staff briefed senior officials from several DOE offices, including Nuclear Energy and Environmental Management, on their findings at the end of December. Additional briefings are being scheduled with members of Congress, particularly those whose districts include the Hanford, Idaho, and Savannah River sites.

Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), whose congressional district encompasses Hanford, is reviewing the report and working to schedule a meeting with the board, his office said Friday. Staff for Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) were expected to meet with board representatives next week.

It is outside of the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board purview to recommend how DOE or Congress should act on the report’s findings, according to senior board staffer Bret Leslie.

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