High-Level Waste Testimony


Mr. Chairman, members of the Subcommittee, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is pleased to testify regarding the U.S. program for management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel, and specifically, the Commission views on S.608, the "Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1999."

The NRC continues to make progress and remains on schedule consistent with our responsibilities under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) and the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act (NWPAA). We are meeting our current obligations to provide a regulatory framework for the licensing of a geologic repository and to consult with the Department of Energy (DOE) and other stakeholders in advance of the license application.

As part of our overall pre-licensing strategy, we are concentrating our review on those key technical issues that are most important to repository performance and, therefore, to licensing. This process is at the heart of our ongoing review of the DOE Viability Assessment that we received in late December. The Commission was briefed last week on the results of the NRC staff review as well as on the views of our Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste and other stakeholders, including the state of Nevada, the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, tribal governments, and various affected units of local government in Nevada. I am pleased to report that the NRC staff has identified no major questions with regard to many important aspects of the Viability Assessment. We believe this can be attributed, in part, to the frequent, open interactions the NRC staff has maintained with the DOE over the past year in preparing the Viability Assessment. The staff review has identified some specific areas for improvement within the DOE repository program. In particular, we have identified persistent quality assurance deficiencies, and the DOE agrees that it must give increased attention to implementation of its quality assurance program. However, we are confident that the DOE recognizes many of the areas where additional work is needed prior to NRC licensing of the repository.

Because we anticipate that we will have only a very short period in which to issue final implementing regulations once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued final standards for the repository, the Commission initiated its own rulemaking in parallel with the development of the EPA standards. On February 22 of this year, the Commission published proposed regulations at 10 CFR Part 63 for public comment. We feel that we have an obligation to make public now our proposed approach for implementing the health-based standards called for by the Congress, in order to provide guidance for the DOE to begin preparing a license application, and to allow for timely and meaningful public involvement in the development of our implementing regulations. This week, in fact, NRC staff members are conducting public workshops in Las Vegas and Beatty, Nevada, to encourage the involvement of members of the public most affected by the decisions we will make in promulgating final regulations for Yucca Mountain. Our proposed rule makes clear that the NRC will amend its regulations in the proposed 10CFR Part 63, if necessary, to conform to the final EPA standards, or to any new legislation that may be enacted.

As an interim measure until the repository can be licensed and constructed, the NRC considers available technologies for wet and dry storage of spent fuel at reactor sites to be safe. We view dry storage as the preferred method for supplementary storage of spent fuel at operating plants. However, we believe that centralized interim storage of spent fuel in dry cask storage systems offers several beneficial features. A centralized interim storage facility, when compared with dispersed storage at about 75 sites across the country, would allow for more focused inspection and surveillance by both the DOE and the NRC. In addition, such a facility would be more efficient (especially when compared to having to continue storage at permanently shut-down facilities), and would afford operational and programmatic benefits for the DOE program for accepting waste from utilities. As the regulator of such a facility, the NRC takes no position as to where a centralized facility should be located. For any proposed site, the Commission must make the appropriate safety, security, and environmental findings before issuing the license.

Although centralized storage offers several advantages, the Commission firmly believes that continued at-reactor storage, for an interim period, will continue to protect public health and safety. DOE Secretary Richardson recently proposed for consideration an alternative to "take title" to the spent nuclear fuel temporarily stored at the various utilities around the country. From a safety perspective, the Commission does not object to the concept of the DOE taking title to spent fuel at commercial power reactor facilities. However, the concept does raise a number of legislative, legal, and resource issues that would need to be addressed specifically by the Congress. If this were to occur, the Commission firmly believes that the NRC should retain regulatory responsibility for independent spent fuel storage installations, for the following reasons:

  • First, there is the issue of plant safety. The NRC would need to review carefully the interface between each power reactor, in the operation of its spent fuel storage pool, and the DOE facilities, particularly in the areas of emergency planning responsibilities. Price Anderson liability, financial assurance for decommissioning, storage of greater than Class C waste, and other issues also would need to be addressed.
  • Second, there is the issue of consistency in regulation, not only for those sites planning to develop a spent fuel facility, but also for those sites which already have constructed one. If the DOE were to take title to the spent fuel and were to manage it at the reactor sites, or elsewhere if it is already stored off the reactor site, the potential would exist for multiple regulatory schemes at the sites, which could complicate control of the spent fuel and, at worst, lead to diminished safety and security. For example, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act requires the DOE to use NRC-certified casks for transporting spent fuel to the repository. However, current law does not subject DOE-owned or DOE-titled material to NRC transportation safety or physical security requirements. The lack of a consistent regulatory oversight program could lead to mis-perceptions about the safety of spent fuel transportation.
  • Third, there is the issue of stakeholder concerns. The public has come to expect a degree of external regulation and monitoring of Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installations, which may not occur if the DOE has sole operational and regulatory responsibility for the sites.
  • Fourth, there is the potential for diversion of Nuclear Waste Fund resources away from the primary mission of developing a permanent geologic repository and supporting facilities. Depending on the financial arrangements of this alternative, there is the potential for significant expenditures of Nuclear Waste Fund (or general fund) resources for these purposes.

S. 608

Let me turn now to the proposed legislation, S. 608, the subject of the hearing this morning. In general, the Commission agrees with the fundamental approach taken in

S. 608. This bill contains the basic elements of an integrated system for the management and disposal of high-level radioactive waste that is necessary for the protection of public health and safety, the environment, and the common defense and security. These elements include deep geologic disposal and centralized interim storage, together with a transportation program linking the elements together. Moreover, S. 608 recognizes that the overall, long-term success of the national program to manage spent fuel and other high-level radioactive waste requires a permanent disposal solution.

Geologic Repository

The Commission strongly supports including in S. 608 the permanent, deep geologic disposal of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste as an essential element of the integrated system described in the draft statute. The Commission continues to believe that deep underground disposal is a sound and technically feasible disposition of spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes. Because the Waste Confidence decision of the Commission is predicated on the eventual availability of disposal in a mined geologic repository, we strongly support the inclusion of Section 204(g). Such a provision would permit the Commission to base its waste confidence determinations not only on the DOE obligation to construct and operate an interim storage facility, but also on its obligation to develop and implement the integrated spent fuel management system, including permanent, deep geologic disposal.

In testimony on H.R. 45, the corresponding bill under consideration by the House of Representatives, the Commission supported a provision at section 205(a)(1) that would revoke the DOE repository siting guidelines at 10 CFR Part 960 in order to allow the DOE to focus resources on developing a high-quality repository license application. If the guidelines are to be retained, the Commission agrees with section 205(f)(2) of S. 608 that would require the guidelines to be amended such that any conclusion regarding site suitability should be based on an assessment of overall system performance.

With respect to the proposed overall system performance standard for the repository in S. 608, the Commission considers 10,000 years to be a sufficient length of time to assess the isolation capability of the repository system. The Commission believes that the standard in S. 608 limiting the lifetime risk of premature death from cancer to the average member of the critical group to approximately (but not greater than) 1 in 1,000 is consistent with protection of public health and safety. This level of risk corresponds to an average expected annual dose of about 100 millirem (1 milliSievert) over a thirty-year exposure period, which is consistent with the NRC public dose limit in 10 CFR Part 20, the EPA proposed Federal Guidance on public protection, the recommendations of the Congressionally chartered National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, and the findings of the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

The Commission supports inclusion of the internationally accepted "average member of the critical group" approach, using a reference biosphere, as recommended by the National Academy of Sciences, for application to the Yucca Mountain repository. In its proposed regulations at Part 63, the Commission has proposed to restrict the expected dose to the average member of the critical group in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain to 25 millirem (0.25 milliSievert) per year (which would be substantially less than a lifetime risk of 1 in 1,000). The use of the internationally accepted "constraint" approach will help ensure that exposure to members of the public from all sources of radiation, excluding natural background, is less than the 100 millirem annual dose limit for members of the public. The constraint of 25 millirem/year is consistent with existing limits for monitored retrievable storage and independent spent fuel storage installations (Part 72) and low-level waste facilities (Part 61). The 25 millirem annual value is also within the international constraints that allocate doses from high-level waste disposal to between 10 and 30 millirem/year and is comparable to the risk range recommended by the National Academy of Sciences for Yucca Mountain.

In this regard, we note that Section 205(e) of S. 608 would direct the Commission to amend its regulations at 10 CFR Part 60, to be consistent with the provisions of the Act. We would ask that specific reference to Part 60 be deleted because we believe that the requirements we recently proposed at 10 CFR Part 63 are generally consistent with the intent of the proposed legislation and in accordance with the 1992 Energy Policy Act.

Interim Storage Facility

We support the integrated waste management approach as outlined in Section 204, which establishes a process for an initial license for an interim storage facility, with subsequent amendments as needed. Specifically, the DOE would be required to submit a license application for a facility with a capacity of not more than 30,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU) within 12 months of enactment. The draft legislation provides that the Commission may grant or deny this application within 32 months after the date of submittal of the application, with an ultimate license issuance date of June 30, 2003. The term for the license would be for forty years with renewable terms upon subsequent application. Additionally, the DOE would not be authorized to commence construction until an appropriate environmental finding is made.

The proposed legislation also requires that the NRC regulations be amended to expand the definition of spent nuclear fuel within 32 months after enactment of the legislation to include noncommercial spent fuel and defense high-level waste, inferring that these new waste streams could be added to the central interim storage facility. Although the proposed legislation seeks to expand the definition of high level waste for interim storage, the NRC has not developed the technical criteria necessary to ensure safe storage of noncommercial spent fuel and defense high-level waste. Including these additional waste types could result in a far more complex and time-consuming review process for the centralized interim storage facility and cask designs, because of the need to integrate these additional waste types into planning for the central interim storage facility cask systems. Consequently, we would prefer to issue a license initially for spent fuel, and consider an amendment request in the future to accommodate other suitable waste types.

The NRC regulations currently allow site-specific interim storage license terms of 20 years, with the option for renewal for another 20 years. Our regulations would need to be revised to permit a 40-year license with renewable terms for a central interim storage facility (as opposed to a monitored retrievable storage facility). The NRC staff only recently has begun to evaluate the technical considerations associated with licensing of dry cask storage systems and facilities for a period of 20 to 100 years. At this point, we have not identified any safety or environmental issues that would preclude issuance of a license for 100 years for an above-ground, centralized interim storage facility, or at reactor independent spent fuel storage installations

We would not oppose a provision, as in the House bill, that would allow commencement of construction of the interim storage facility subsequent to the submittal of a license application, with the provision that the Commission could issue an order suspending construction if it determined that the construction posed an unreasonable risk to the public health and safety or the environment.

As you may know, the NRC currently is reviewing the DOE May 1997 topical report for a non-site-specific centralized interim storage facility. The NRC staff expects to complete its review by October 1999. The NRC Assessment Report will provide an early indication of the acceptability and feasibility of the DOE approach to centralized interim storage, which should be useful to the DOE prior to its submission of a license application.

Lastly, the Commission has not budgeted for the licensing review and regulation of the proposed central interim storage facility as outlined in S. 608. For the Commission to support such a review, which would be concurrent with the repository action, the NRC should have a sufficient appropriation from the Nuclear Waste Fund to support both activities.


S. 608 also recognizes the importance of the integrated transportation of spent fuel and high-level waste in the current regulatory system. The NRC supports the requirement that NRC-certified packages be used for these activities. To this end, we currently are reviewing six commercial designs for dual-purpose storage and transportation cask systems. By December 2000, we anticipate that all of the storage reviews and two of the transportation reviews will be completed.

Recently, there have been multiple press articles and public statements that may fuel inappropriate and unjustified public fears about the safety of spent fuel shipments. The shipment of spent nuclear fuel in NRC-approved transportation containers has an unparalleled record of success from a safety perspective. There has never been a release of radioactive material from an accident involving an NRC-approved spent fuel transportation container. Similarly, over the last 40 years, there have been thousands of spent fuel shipments by the United States Navy that have occurred without a release of radioactive materials.

We have identified specific changes to the transportation aspects of the proposed legislation that should be considered. First, Section 202 would require the DOE to use routes that minimize the transportation of spent fuel and high-level radioactive waste through populated areas to the maximum practicable extent, and consistent with Federal requirements governing transportation of hazardous materials. This provision is not consistent with the existing route selection requirements for spent fuel shipments not subject to this Act. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) currently has established highway routing rules for spent fuel shipments that do not require avoidance of populated areas. The routing rules were developed by the DOT after extensive public involvement and have been successfully implemented. In fact, the current DOT rules require the use of the Interstate system, an implication that spent fuel shipments may transit populated areas. Further, the avoidance of such routes might increase shipment distance, time, and risk. Therefore, it is not clear that this provision enhances public health and safety.

Additionally, Section 510 states that "acceptance by the Secretary of any spent nuclear fuel or high-level radioactive waste shall constitute a transfer of title to the Secretary." If the transfer were to take place at the utilities prior to shipment, the material would become DOE-titled material, not NRC-licensed material, at the time of shipment. Under current law, shipment by the DOE of DOE-titled material is not subject to the NRC transportation safety or physical security requirements. Consequently, unless it is explicitly required in S. 608, the NRC would have no oversight role for such shipments, including certification of casks, inspection of the shipments for radiological safety, or review and approval of shipment physical security plans. Although the shipments would be subject to the DOT Hazardous Material Regulations, many stakeholders expect that such shipments would be subject to regulation by the NRC. For the NRC to assume this role, S. 608 would need to be modified to require NRC oversight of the shipments.

Finally, with regard to transportation, we agree with the incorporation of a training standard in S. 608. We would look forward to consulting with the DOT and others on the scope and elements for required training.

Other Aspects of S. 608

S. 608 provides schedule milestones for the licensing of the interim storage facility and the repository, including a requirement for the DOE to apply to the Commission no later than October 31, 2001, for authorization to construct the repository. This deadline would be six months earlier than the schedule that the DOE is working towards currently. Based on our understanding of the Viability Assessment, the DOE will need until 2002 to conduct the site characterization and design activities to support a complete and high-quality license application. The NRC also is working toward a 2002 license application date in preparing the regulatory framework and review procedures. Therefore, accelerating the schedule for submitting the license application would present difficulties for both the DOE and the NRC and could detract from the quality of the DOE application or the NRC review.

The Commission supports, based upon current experience, a provision of 36 months for the NRC to review and complete the licensing action on an application for a central interim storage facility. The Commission believes it can accommodate the provision of 40 months for review and final action on an application for authorization to construct a repository. However, we believe that the timetables established for licensing of both the interim storage facility and the repository will be adequate, only if:

  • The license applications and supporting documentation are submitted in a timely fashion and are of sufficiently high quality; and
  • Sufficient resources are provided for the NRC programs to accommodate concurrent pre-licensing and licensing reviews for the two facilities, and related transportation issues.

In order to meet the schedules and milestones described in S. 608, the Commission notes that the legislation would need to be enacted by October 1999.

We support provisions in S. 608 on the scope of NRC responsibilities for disposal under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) that, consistent with existing law, direct the NRC to adopt the DOE Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), to the extent practicable, in the repository licensing proceeding. The Commission also supports the provisions of the bill specifying the scope of the NRC EIS, requiring the generic consideration of transportation impacts, and identifying the issues that should not be considered by the Commission under NEPA for interim storage. The Commission further supports the inclusion of section 206(b), which makes clear that the NRC will not be required to prepare an EIS under section 102(2)(C) of NEPA, or any environmental review under subparagraph (E) or (F) of the Act, in connection with the issuance of disposal regulations in sections 205(e) and (f).


The Commission is meeting its obligations under existing law to prepare for licensing a geologic repository, and to ensure the safe interim storage and transportation of spent fuel. The Commission believes that its proposed Part 63 regulation is an appropriate approach to ensure that the regulatory framework is sufficiently protective of public health and safety and the environment and developed in a timely manner. The Commission agrees that S. 608 outlines an appropriate program for the permanent disposition of high-level radioactive waste, by providing an integrated spent fuel management system, on-site storage, centralized off-site storage, and deep geologic disposal, with a transportation system to link them. Whether under the existing law or a revised legislative framework, the U.S. high-level waste program needs both statutory and institutional stability to proceed in an orderly, efficient, timely, and effective manner. The Commission believes that, when coupled with sufficient resources to maintain progress in all phases, S. 608 can supply this necessary stability. Thank you for this opportunity to provide our views.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Friday, July 10, 2020