While still lacking a deep geological repository for the permanent disposal of its commercial used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste, the United States does have regulatory standards for geological nuclear waste disposal.
Having been written nearly 40 years ago, however, those standards are outmoded and lack transparency, according to a special committee of the American Nuclear Society, which has released draft recommendations on revising public health and safety standards for future geological repository projects in the United States.
Revised standards: Issued by the ANS Special Committee on Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste, the draft report provides a recommended framework for revisiting geologic repository standards that were first promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1985. The committee intends to release final recommendations for adopting generic, non–site-specific repository standards after receiving feedback from stakeholders on the draft report.
“The commercial nuclear power industry in the United States has done an exemplary job storing and transporting used nuclear fuel but, as a nation, the U.S. lags behind other countries that are moving ahead with geologic repository programs for final disposal of the material,” said Dr. John Kessler, Chair of the ANS Special Committee on Generic Standards for Disposal of High-Level Radioactive Waste which authored the report.
“The U.S. nuclear waste disposal program has been at a standstill since the suspension of the Yucca Mountain geologic repository project more than a decade ago, in 2010,” said Kessler. “It is time to get moving again, and in order to evaluate the suitability of future geologic repository sites, the country needs up-to-date health and safety standards against which long-term repository performance can be assessed.”
The draft report recommends changes in several areas, including treatment of human intrusion and regulatory treatment of the time period greater than 10,000 years following closure of the disposal facility.
“Although some parts of the existing, generic geologic disposal standard are still appropriate, other parts of the existing generic disposal standard lack the benefit of developments over the past 30 years since the existing standard was promulgated,” said Kessler. The draft report recommends changes in several areas, including treatment of human intrusion and regulatory treatment of the time period greater than 10,000 years following closure of the disposal facility.
Background: The current U.S. geologic repository standards for all sites other than Yucca Mountain are codified in the EPA regulation 40 CFR Part 191, Environmental Radiation Protection Standards for Management and Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel, High-Level and Transuranic Radioactive Wastes, which has served adequately for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M.
Those site-specific standards, however, are inconsistent with current international standards and are difficult to apply to certain disposal technologies, according to the ANS special committee.
“The country and the world need nuclear fission reactors as a clean, secure, reliable source of energy, both now and in the future,” wrote ANS President Steven Arndt in the draft report’s preface. “Those reactors have produced—and will continue to produce—relatively small volumes of waste that require geologic disposal. ANS has produced this report with the hope and expectation that it will prove to be a catalyst for the development of updated geologic repository standards by the EPA. That action will be a key building block for future progress on nuclear waste management, irrespective of what course of action policymakers ultimately choose to follow.”
Feedback: The special committee is eliciting feedback on its draft recommendations and will be holding at least one webinar to enable interactions with interested parties. The deadline for comments is Friday, April 14. After consideration of input, the special committee plans to issue a final report this summer.
The process by which EPA might update its standards has not begun, and EPA will likely require direction from Congress before formal rulemaking can be initiated.
The draft report, Recommendations on Postclosure Aspects of Generic Standards for the Permanent Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level and Transuranic Radioactive Wastes in the United States, can be viewed here. Comments and suggestions are encouraged and should be submitted through the ANS Collaborate website. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and commenting assistance.