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June 2011, Report of the Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of NEAC

The Fuel Cycle subcommittee of NEAC met April 25-26 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The main topics of discussion were the Used Nuclear Fuel (UNF) disposal program, the System Study Program’s methodology that is to be used to set priorities for R&D on advanced fuel cycles, and the University Programs. In addition to these, we were briefed on the budget, but have no comments other than a hope for a good outcome and restrict ourselves to general advice until more is known.

A current complication in the design of the Fuel Cycle R&D FCRD program is the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) which has been created to address the issues involved in long term disposal of used nuclear fuel (UNF) and any of the highly radioactive materials that are created with any possible treatment of that material. A summary of the draft findings of the BRC has been made public, but the final version of their report will not be available until later this year. NE has adopted the sensible procedure of focusing on generic issues that must be addressed irrespective of the final system while waiting for the BRC report before getting back to the specific issues relating to different choices on long term issues.

In this section of our report we summarize the issues we see in the three areas and collect all of our recommendations at the end of this section. Details are in subsequent sections.

UNF Program: With the decision to terminate the Yucca Mountain repository project, the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management was dissolved and responsibility for R&D related to treatment and disposition of UNF was transferred to NE along with a much reduced budget and staff.

It is clear that a new repository cannot be opened for at least 20 to 30 years considering the time it will take to chose a site, validate its viability and license it. The oldest UNF is already 50 years old so whatever the BRC recommends, the disposal program will have to deal with fuel that is, at a minimum, 70 to 80 years older than when it was removed from a reactor, a period far longer than contemplated originally in the spent fuel management program. There are issues of fuel integrity during long-term storage, and issues in transporting such fuel from a reactor site to any interim or final repository, and it is a priority to carry out the R&D to assure that we have the proper methods for storing and transporting the material. These issues are discussed in Section II of this report, and the focus of today’s R&D in the area is on these issues.

The direction of future repository related R&D will have to await the final report of the BRC. Interim storage issues are already being addressed and there will probably be geological and chemical issues related to the type of long term storage that may need to be addressed in order to make a repository siting decision.

We also note that the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) was established by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act as amended (1987). Its members are appointed by the President, and its charter is to advise Congress and the Administration on technical issues related to implementing the Act. The NWTRB issues periodic reports and a particularly interesting one is their 2009 report comparing various national programs for disposing of high level waste.

(http://brc.gov/e-mails/June10/nwtrb%2020sept%202009.pdf).

Recommendation: Since NE will have responsibilities in the UNF disposition program, the roles and responsibilities of the NWTRB and NEAC and its subcommittees need to be clarified.