NRC report: Inspection rules for nuclear storage sites are lacking

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not have an adequate system in place for the inspection of nuclear spent fuel storage sites, the agency’s inspector general said this week, warning that reforms are needed to ensure the public is protected from the highly radioactive waste.

NRC’s inspector general, in a report dated March 19, said the agency should institute a “formalized agency-wide” inspection program for the more than 50 temporary spent nuclear fuel storage sites around the country.

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The IG also called on the agency to institute “minimum inspection frequency” standards to ensure that the storage facilities are subject to consistent oversight.

The report comes as nuclear spent fuel storage is coming under intense scrutiny in Washington in the aftermath of the Japanese nuclear disaster. 

House Republicans are conducting an investigation into the Obama administration’s decision to abandon plans to build a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, arguing the project was scuttled for political reasons. And some Senate Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), are raising concerns about the safety of temporary spent fuel storage.

With the prospects for a permanent nuclear repository up in the air, the NRC is increasingly relying on temporary storage sites, in which spent fuel is held in dry casks often near nuclear reactors.

There is no “formalized agency-wide training program” at the NRC for spent fuel storage sites, the IG report says.

“When [spent fuel storage site] safety inspectors do not have a consistent understanding of agency inspection requirements, oversight can be compromised,” the report says. “Specifically, there is an increased potential for inadequate inspections to occur, which could result in an increased risk to public health and safety.”

The report also finds that that the frequency of inspections varies widely. In some sites inspections occur annually, while in others they occur every six years, the report says.

“Routine [spent fuel storage site] safety inspections could be delayed indefinitely without clearly defined inspection frequency guidance, potentially increasing the risk to public health and safety,” the report says.

The IG report says there are 57 interim spent fuel storage sites in the United States, 47 of which are located near nuclear reactors. The industry expects an expansion of these storage sites, estimating that by 2025 all 104 U.S. nuclear reactors will have such a facility.

While the NRC did not provide a formal response to the findings, the IG report says "agency management stated their general agreement with the findings and recommendations."