The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved a final rule addressing the environmental effects of continued storage of spent nuclear fuel. Once it comes into force, the rule will end the two-year suspension of final licensing decisions for new reactors, reactor licence renewals and spent fuel storage facility renewals.

The approval of the rule signals the end of a two-year effort to satisfy a remand by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which in June 2012 struck down the NRC’s 2010 revision of its "waste confidence" rule. It directed the NRC to consider the possibility that a geologic repository for permanent disposal of spent fuel might never be built, and to do further analysis of spent fuel pool leaks and fires. NRC responded in August 2012 by suspending final licensing decisions and directed the staff to develop a new rule and a supporting Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) within 24 months.

The GEIS analyses the environmental impact of storing spent fuel beyond the licensed operating life of reactors for 60 years (short-term), 100 years after the short-term scenario (long-term) and indefinitely. It also contains an analysis of spent fuel pool leaks and fires. As a result, the generic impacts do not need to be re-analysed in the environmental reviews for individual licences, NRC says.
Following approval on 26 August, the final rule and GEIS have been renamed from "waste confidence" to "continued storage of spent nuclear fuel." The name was changed in response to near-unanimous public comment to more accurately reflect the nature and content of the rule, NRC said.

A separate Order has been approved, authorising the NRC staff to issue final licensing decisions as appropriate once the final rule becomes effective, 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

"The completion of this rulemaking is an important step that will facilitate final decisions on industry licensing actions pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," said Ellen Ginsberg, vice president, secretary and general counsel for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

It also commended the NRC for adhering to the 24-month schedule established by the commission for publication of the final rule.

Photo: Public meeting on waste confidence held in 2012 (Credit NRC)