Although the Obama administration and Senator Reid (D-NV) have not altered their position to keep used nuclear fuel out of Yucca Mountain and the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission continues to meet to develop a nuclear waste strategy (even though a coherent strategy was enacted in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has reaffirmed its confidence in the ability of licensees to be able to safely store high-level nuclear waste. In an NRC Staff Requirements Memorandum (SRM) approved today, the Commission approved revisions to the draft final Waste Confidence Rule – extending its finding regarding the ability of licensees to safely store used fuel without significant environmental impacts for at least 60 years after operation at any nuclear power plant. The Commission also directed the NRC staff to initiate a long-term rulemaking to address impacts of storage at onsite storage facilities, offsite storage facilities or both for extended periods.

In 2009, when the NRC was a three-member Commission, an attempt to update the Waste Confidence Rule (10 CFR Part 51.23) failed when two of three Commissioners declined to approve the complete draft final rule on the Waste Confidence findings, with Commissioners Klein and Svinicki approving part of the update and disapproving part. Both Commissioners said additional public input was needed in light of the Obama administration’s statements that it would not open a repository at Yucca Mountain.

Today, NRC Chairman Jaczko is quoted as saying, “The Commission affirmed our confidence that spent nuclear fuel can be stored safely and securely without significant environmental impacts for at least 60 years after operation at any nuclear power plant.” In order to address recurring contentions in licensing proceedings, the Commission directed the NRC staff to perform additional analysis for longer-term storage to ensure that the NRC remains fully informed by current circumstances and scientific knowledge relating to spent fuel storage and disposal.

The existing Waste Confidence Rule includes a Commission finding that licensees can safely store used nuclear fuel “without significant environmental impacts for at least 30 years beyond the licensed life for operation (which may include the term of a revised or renewed license) of that reactor.” The finding also concludes that the Commission expects there to be at least one operating geologic repository in the first quarter of the 21st century. By extending the Waste Confidence Rule finding to 60 years of safe fuel storage, the NRC is facilitating licensing of new commercial reactors and extending the period by which licensees should expect to be able to safely store fuel in spent fuel pools or independent spent fuel storage installations. The NRC staff is expected to publish the final rule in the Federal Register within 60 days.