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If You've Got Nuclear Waste, This Is the Week to Dump It

Thanks to the government shutdown, the inspectors are all stuck at home.

by Derek Mead
Oct 14 2013, 8:10pm
A spent fuel pool, via the NRC

It's a problem we've all faced: You've got all this nuclear waste, and the darn inspectors insist you store it in really expensive long-term facilities. Mondays, right? But I've got good news for all the penny-pinching nuclear waste barons out there: Thanks to the government shutdown, the inspectors are all stuck at home.

Last Wednesday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ran out of money. Thursday, the agency tasked with ensuring the safety of our very old nuclear fleet furloughed more than 90 percent of its staff. Thankfully, the inspectors that reside permanently at nuclear facilities are still employed, and emergency response staff are still on call in case of an event. Our nuclear plants are nominally as well-monitored as they were a week ago, despite the NRC losing 3600 of its 3900 staffers.

But while active nuclear plants still have their government inspectors on site, what about nuclear waste? The tens of thousands of tons of spent nuclear fuel that's accumulated in the last 40 years still has no permanent home, and often is stored on-site in steel and concrete casks. The NRC is tasked with inspecting those storage facilities to ensure that they aren't leaking, but since last Thursday those inspectors have been forced to stay home, along with the people tasked with licensing aging plants.

"Beginning on Thursday, we will not conduct non-emergency reactor licensing, reactor license renewal amendments, emergency preparedness exercises, reviews of design certifications or rulemaking and regulatory guidance," NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane wrote in a blog post. "Also suspended for now will be routine licensing and inspection of nuclear materials and waste licensees, Agreement State support and rulemakings, including Waste Confidence."

Beyond inspections, the forced NRC shutdown is throwing off the development of plans for the future safety of America's nuclear energy production. Waste confidence refers to the NRC's directive to determine "the environmental impacts associated with the storage of spent fuel after the end of a reactor's licensed life for operation." The result is supposed to be a report assessing the risks of storing nuclear fuel "beyond the licensed life for operation of a reactor," known as the Generic Environmental Impact Statement.

This is important because the GEIS will act as the guidelines for the future of nuclear waste storage in the US. And guess what? The NRC's doors have been shut right in the middle of the 75 day public comment period on the plan. Five public meetings to comment on the plan have already been rescheduled. Meanwhile, the US public has lost the ability to directly comment on plans that are clearly important. The NRC isn't sure yet if it will be able to extend the comment period, or even how long it will take to get back online.

Mildly related: this doc on Yucca Mountain feels like an awesome video from high school science class. 

"While no one knows how long the shutdown will last, the NRC staff is already making plans for a smooth, quick 'restart' of the agency," wrote Mark Satorius, executive director of operations, in a blog post. "While we know there will be some lag time between bringing all employees back and becoming fully functioning again, we want that lag to be as short as possible. We hope we are all back at work soon."

Of course, the biggest question is when the US will ever get a permanent nuclear waste disposal facility. Since 1987, that was supposed to be the Yucca Mountain facility, but federal funding was yanked in 2010 by the Obama administration. In August of this year, a federal court ordered the NRC to continue working on the Yucca Mountain facility until it ran out of money; in September, Chairman Macfarlane testified to Congress that the agency wasn't sure if it had enough money to complete its safety analysis of the site.

The Yucca Mountain process is continuing despite the shutdown, as it's now funded by the Nuclear Waste Fund, which collects fees from nuclear facilities around the country. In fact, those fees from private operators make up 90 percent of the NRC's budget.

But—as if the whole shutdown situation wasn't ridiculous enough—because those fees go to the US Treasury and then are disbursed by Congress, the NRC still can't access them without a budget being passed. That means the NRC theoretically has money to continue its (rather important) operations, but technically can't access them because House Republicans refuse to allow a budget to be passed. The Senate is now optimistic about passing a budget, which may get the US out of this mess. I wouldn't hold my breath just yet.