The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ruled that spent nuclear fuel can be safely stored indefinitely at decommissioned nuclear power plants.
The rule stems from a 2012 appeals court ruling ordering the NRC to consider the chance that a long-promised, permanent nuclear waste repository might never be built. The court also ordered the agency to do further analysis of the risks of spent fuel pool leaks and fires.
The NRC rule, adopted Tuesday, is based on a two-year study ordered by the court. The study considered environmental and safety impacts of fuel stored for 60 years after a plant stops operating. It also looked at a time period of 160 years, and at indefinite lengths of time.
Neil Sheehan is an NRC spokesman.
"The conclusion after the NRC staff looked at all these various areas," Sheehan says, "is that the fuel can be safely stored, but there are certain steps that would have to be taken to insure that that’s the case."
Sheehan says the rule applies both to fuel stored in spent-fuel pools and in dry casks made of metal and concrete, which are used at Entergy Vermont Yankee.
Sheehan says the ruling calls for fuel stored in dry casks to be repackaged every 100 years. He says nuclear facilities have their own protocols for monitoring and inspecting the dry casks, in some cases every 24 hours.
"The spent fuel pools have alarms in the control rooms that would notify them if there’s a problem," Sheehan says.
Entergy Vermont Yankee, which is closing at the end of this year, says it plans to transfer its spent fuel into dry casks as quickly as possible, probably by 2020. Entergy already has one dry cask storage site and has applied has applied to the Vermont Public Service Board for permission to build another. Preliminary proceedings on that request are expected to start in October.
Sheehan says that even after a plant closes it will have security personnel, reactor operators and fuel handlers onsite to monitor and manage the spent nuclear fuel. He says federal regulations require such staffing for as long as the fuel remains on site.
Ray Shadis, of the anti-nuclear New England Coalition, is dubious about that claim.
"Does that mean that Entergy is going to be onsite for that 100 years?" Shadis asks. "If the fuel is stored 200 years, will Entergy be there to handle the fuel?"
Shadis also questions whether the NRC’s impact study adequately considered such risks as earthquakes or terrorist attacks.
He says the New England Coalition is working with other groups across the country to challenge the NRC on the safety of onsite fuel storage. The rule is expected to go into effect after a 30-day comment period.