By John Stang
One senator expressed concern Wednesday about the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s consideration of cutting back on inspections of spent fuel storage facilities at the nation’s nuclear power plants.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) raised the issue during a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee featuring testimony from two senior NRC officials.
“When we have multiple nuclear reactors closing, and as a result additional spent fuel going into dry-cask storage, you proposed dramatic reductions in dry-cask storage inspections,” said Carper, the panel’s ranking member. “I just want to ask if you would explain … why you think it’s necessary to make this change at this time?”
Margaret Doane, NRC executive director for operations, replied: “It is not a proposal. It is under consideration.” She added that the agency is looking at trimming redundancies in its activities.
The topic was otherwise not discussed during the hearing, a one-year update on the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act, which was signed into law in January 2019.
Carper’s question followed a Jan. 10 letter from three Democratic members of the House asking the NRC not to trim those inspections.
“It is our understanding that the Commission is reviewing a staff recommendation that would cut annual inspections of dry cask loading campaigns from 66 hours to 32 hours, a 51 percent reduction in yearly safety monitoring, as well as a 33 percent reduction in routine ISFSI inspection hours,” Reps. Andy Kim (N.J.), Mike Levin (Calif.), and Doris Matsui (Calif.) wrote to NRC Chairman Kristine Svinicki. “A second recommendation proposes cutting dry cask loading inspections from 32 hours per year to just a little more than 6 hours per year, an 80 percent reduction.”
Such a move “would be detrimental to safety,” according to the three lawmakers, who noted they have retired and decommissioning nuclear power reactors in their home communities.
Fifteen House members from California, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Oregon, and Wisconsin signed on to the letter, Levin’s office said in a press release.
The NRC this week said only that it would respond to the House letter through its standard correspondence practice.
There are currently more than 82,000 metric tons of used fuel assemblies in storage at over 70 nuclear sites around the country. Active power plants add 2,000 to 2,500 metric tons of spent fuel to that stockpile each year, according to the Department of Energy.
The potential inspection reduction is part of a general look at cutting expenses at the nuclear industry regulator. The concept is that the inspectors would focus on the higher-risk subjects and spend less time on lower-risk ones. So far, no formal proposals with cost figures and public hearing dates have been unveiled. The agency aims to implement the cost-reduction by 2021.
The agency is considering the recommendation from an internal working group of personnel from headquarters and its regional offices. The intent is to increase efficiency and decrease costs at the NRC.
The group recommended the NRC spend 35 hours per year on inspecting each loading operation of used nuclear fuel from cooling pools into long-term dry storage, down from the current 62 hours. That would reduce the dry storage site inspectors from 2.94 full-time equivalents (FTE) to 1.56, with one FTE equaling 1,500 hours per year of inspecting. These inspections are conducted once every two years by a combination of regional and headquarters staffers, with several making up the FTE figures.
The inspections cover operations ranging from preoperational tests to the actual movement of used fuel to long-term monitoring of that radioactive material in storage containers. While the approach generally would involve a reduction in hours, it would increase inspection hours for pre-operations and initial loading of spent fuel.
The generally accepted figures would represent a 47% reduction in inspections. However, the agency’s Atlanta-based Region II had backed an 88% decrease.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the NRC should consider promoting future nuclear technology that would produce wastes and spent fuel that a utility or company can use to make money. He argued that the agency should find ways to provide help or money to inspire the private sector to tackle that issue.
“There is no financial reward to solve that problem. … I don’t know if that will pan out,” Whitehouse said.