Holtec to start regulatory process for New Mexico used fuel store soon

30 July 2015

Holtec International has unveiled the schedule for its proposed consolidated interim storage facility (CISF) for used nuclear fuel, with start-up slated for 2020. Holtec sees the facility, to be built in south-eastern New Mexico, as the only solution being put forward to deal with the USA's 70,000 tonnes of used nuclear fuel that is currently located in 35 states and at about 70 sites.

In April, Holtec and Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA) announced the signing of a memorandum of agreement covering the design, licensing, construction and operation of the facility that is to be modelled on Holtec's HI-STORM UMAX dry storage system. ELEA will provide the land and local logistics support, including existing environmental characterization data.

In a webinar organized by Nuclear Energy Insider yesterday, Holtec International senior vice president and chief nuclear officer Pierre Oneid said the company would submit its letter of intent for the project to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) next month.

Holtec will request that NRC's used fuel management office opens a Part 72 docket which, Oneid said, "will serve as a letter of intent that will make its way to NRC in August". Part 72 refers to licensing requirements for the independent storage of used nuclear fuel, high-level radioactive waste, and reactor-related greater than Class C waste.

That will mean a pre-application meeting with NRC can be expected by December and an application submittal to the agency by June 2016, Oneid said. "We expect, based on past experience and on our discussions with NRC, that it is reasonable to put a date like October 2018 for the safety evaluation report," he added.

The licence might then be issued in January 2019, with the first phase of construction starting in April 2019. Operation of the facility could then begin a year later.

Wise approach

Oneid said CISF is a "wiser approach" to dealing with the USA's commercial high-level nuclear waste, not least because some storage is currently in the most densely populated areas of the country. Twelve decontamination and decommissioning sites in particular want to turn themselves back to greenfield land, but cannot until the high-level waste is moved, Oneid said.

Transportation of used nuclear fuel and high-level waste is "proven safe", he said, since thousands of tonnes of it have been transported around the USA for the past 40 years "without a single significant incident". In addition, radioactivity "decreases rapidly with time", with gamma and heat decay, he said.

The US government is legally responsible for developing a long-term disposal strategy for used nuclear fuel. From 1992 until 2009, that strategy had been the Yucca Mountain repository. The Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new waste disposal strategy in early 2013, envisaging a series of interim stores until a permanent underground disposal facility is ready for service around 2048.

Breach of contracts associated with termination of the Yucca Mountain project incurs a DOE settlement fund payment of $20 billion by 2020 from the US Treasury, Oneid said, with a further cost after that date of about $500 million per year until a CISF or repository is built.

US taxpayers are paying for the fact that "decisions have not been made" on dealing with used nuclear fuel, Oneid said, and "we want to dispel the argument that there are no solutions".

The 1000-acre (405-hectare) site, mid-way between Hobbs and Carlsbad, which ELEA originally purchased for the DOE's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, is a remote, geologically stable, dry location with existing infrastructure, including rail. It also has a pre-existing and robust scientific and nuclear operations workforce, Oneid said, with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to the south and, to the east, International Isotopes Inc, Louisiana Energy Services and Waste Control Specialists.

"If there is a perfect place on earth for the CISF that would be it,” Oneid said, adding that the facility would require just 60 of the site's 1000 acres.

Proven technology

Holtec is in the process of licensing its HI-STORM UMAX (Holtec International STORage Module Universal MAXimum security) technology to store not only its own canisters, Oneid said, "but any in use today" in the USA.

"We have more than seven dockets as Certificates of Compliance with NRC and also have certificates for transporting casks that exist today, so that if we as a country can get behind the solution we're offering, then we could start transportation immediately," he said.

In addition to the safety and security features of the CISF design using HI-STORM UMAX - for example, it is below waist height, making it inconspicuous and providing a clear view of the entire facility - it enables retrieval of the stored fuel within 4-8 hours.

"We are designing it to be able to retrieve at any point, whether one year or 50 years from now," Oneid said. The technology is also economically desirable since it has already been constructed, at Missouri's Callaway nuclear power plant. In December, Southern California Edison selected HI-STORM UMAX for storing used nuclear fuel from the decommissioned San Onofre plant.

There are therefore no technological impediments, he said, to the proposed CISF, "which we see as a staging facility on the way to permanent storage".

Political hurdle

Asked what he saw then as the main challenges to the project, Oneid said "political support is going to be the number one hurdle", although local government backing in New Mexico is not seen as an issue.

That hurdle will be no surprise to anyone "who is no stranger to the Yucca Mountain situation", he said, noting that the US Senate is to hold a hearing on the storage of used nuclear fuel on 4 October.

On the question of whether the CISF could stimulate new reactor construction projects in the USA, Oneid said that Holtec is actively pursuing the small modular reactor program. He noted that one of the biggest hurdles for the four units under construction today in the country is the "contentious" issue of high-level waste storage.

For the CISF, Holtec could draw on its experience of private fuel storage, Oneid said. Without local support, any such project is "a futile exercise", he said. "We are actively trying to define what 'consent' is and pursuing that to a T." An "interesting block" on licensing, he said, was the effort Holtec had had to make to prove the safety of HI-STORM UMAX against an F-16 crash. Oneid was referring to Holtec's announcement in January 2013 that the USA's first NRC licensed CISF, planned for the Goshute reservation in Skull Valley, Utah, by Private Fuel Storage, had ceased due to opposition from the Department of Interior.

Asked who would ultimately own the fuel stored at the proposed CISF in New Mexico, Oneid said Holtec had started unofficial talks with the DOE. "We will surely soon have official talks with them on a contract whereby the DOE will hold the title to the fuel."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News