Jaczko said spent fuel rods typically need to remain in pools for at least five years in order to fully cool the fuel. The fuel rods can then be moved to dry cask storage and stored for up to 100 years.
However, Feinstein observed that fuel rods are remaining in pools at the reactors for far longer than five years. “They can just sit forever in fuel pods?” she asked.
Jaczko said there is no maximum time that fuel rods can remain in pools, but added that regulations require levels to be continually analyzed.
Feinstein’s panel is one of several Capitol Hill committees looking anew at U.S. reactor safety, and the NRC is undertaking a new review.
But the commission and the nuclear industry have also sought to provide reassurances that the 104 U.S. power reactors have robust safeguards against the catastrophic loss of cooling occurring in Japan.
Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and a member of President Obama’s Council of Advisers for Science and Technology, said the storage of spent fuel “has been an afterthought” in the nuclear regulatory process. Another expert at the hearing agreed.
“[There has been a] lack of national strategy and policy on what we're going to do with it,” said William Levis, president and chief operating officer at PSEG Power LLC.
Levis added that the industry itself is not reluctant to begin a more aggressive process of moving spent fuel rods into dry cask storage, but there is no federal policy that sets a timeline for nuclear waste.
U.S. policy for permanent waste disposal is also a question mark. The Obama administration has walked away from the planned high-level waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.