The Private Fuel Limited Liability Company National Spent Fuel Site
John D. Parkyn
Dairyland Power Cooperative
The issue of retention of unreprocessed spent nuclear fuel became a serious concern in the United States after President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order in the late 1970s that forced U.S. reprocessing companies to cease operation. The order caused utilities to stockpile 40,000 metric tons of uranium (MTU) of spent fuel with the inventory of uranium, plutonium, and thorium intact. No formal national provision was made to deal with this issue during the Carter administration (1976–1980). The subsequent president, Ronald Reagan, nullified the executive order, but U.S. industry was not interested in pursuing reprocessing due to the uncertainty of future political actions and the availability of cheap uranium feedstock. The High Level Nuclear Waste Act of 1982 committed the U.S. government to building, at utility ratepayers’ expense, an underground repository for spent nuclear fuel, scheduled to open in 1998. As it became apparent that this date would not be met and the temporary site authorized for the Department of Energy would not be built, eight U.S. utilities applied for a license in 1997 to build a site on the Goshute Indian Reservation in Utah. A lease was signed with the Goshutes for such a site. A license decision is expected in 2004.
The Private Fuel Storage Company (PFS) is responsible for the central storage and transportation of spent nuclear fuel. The respective owners are responsible for the packaging of their expended fuel in conformed Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified multiple purpose canisters, useable for both storage and transportation.
POLICIES USED TO SHAPE THE PRIVATE FUEL STORAGE COMPANY
The first meetings involved almost all reactor operators and vendors in the nuclear industry in the United Sates. A full year was spent discussing options and using this field of talent to develop certain fixed practices that would guide PFS regardless of which entities finally formed the company. It was necessary to consider all options to ensure that this large number of resources was heard before ideas were dismissed. PFS was formed as a limited liability company in 1995 by eight of the nation’s utilities. These utilities owned about 20 nuclear-power-producing reactors. They included both for-profit companies and a co-operative.
The initial actions were to decide major principles upon which the effort to centrally store spent fuel on an interim basis would be developed. They included site selection criteria, type of storage, cask orientation, and methods of shipment.
Site Selection Criteria
This process was built on a failed endeavor by the U.S. government called the Voluntary Host Program. The program would have rewarded communities for being willing to host a temporary surface repository. Congress cancelled it for political reasons. The concept was to do a widespread search of possible sites and consider the positives and negatives in each individual case in light of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a thorough review of all aspects of any major activity. This includes a consideration of alternatives for siting and for the action itself such as leaving spent fuel scattered at 70-plus locations throughout the United States. This evaluation, completed before the events of September 11, 2001, created a need for additional protection of hazardous substances. The alternate-sites review initially looked at over 40 initial potential hosts. Consideration was given to the total transportation mileage to the ultimate repository, the population density of the area, the ability of the governmental entity to represent its population, the proximity to groundwater, and the proximity to surface water. The availability of mainline rail transportation was also a major consideration.
The number of potential sites was reduced by a series of reviews, visits, and analysis until four final candidates remained. An engineering evaluation was performed to determine the best site, and a location on the reservation of the Skull Valley Band of the Goshute people in Utah was selected. The sites were all voluntary, and owners or governments were actively involved at each location. Once the site was selected, the negotiation process was started with the host location and included fixed and variable payments and employment preference for those fully qualified. The members of the host community voted on the project. The lease was signed and submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs of
the U.S. government for ratification. This process took several months; collectively the negotiating process took a year. Educational updates to the Band members were accompanied by workshops for those wishing to get additional formal education for qualifying for site jobs.
Specific Site Principles
The two significant commitments to the final site host were that no fuel would be handled at the site (unless a canister failed) and that no radiological contamination was permissible. A decision for no bare fuel handling is a significant improvement in risk potential to a locality. A reactor’s site staff is the group ultimately best qualified to handle their particular type of fuel assemblies, which are then permanently sealed in a multiple purpose canister (MPC). The handling of older fuel assemblies away from the original reactor site introduces a factor that complicates the selection of a voluntary host. The site is designed to facilitate dry transfer into a replacement canister should the process ever be required.
This prevents the need to return fluke to its originating reactor site. The canisters are to be passively air cooled, and therefore any external contamination could become airborne at the site. This is an unacceptable condition. The service agreements with customers were written to require complete decontamination of any radioactive materials from the outside of the MPC before its installation into the shipping cask. On arrival at the PFS site the entire outside of the MPC is monitored for contamination, any located is cleaned immediately, and the customer is billed for the cost. This provides both the incentive and the method to ensure a site free of contamination. Ultimate decommissioning is easy and site closure complete in a relatively short time. The total amount of contaminated material from total site removal will be little and the site will be returned to its owners, the Goshute, in excellent condition for any use they choose.
Type of Storage
It was determined that storage would be accomplished by the use of MPCs, which would allow a single design of a right circular cylinder shape to hold all fuel types in uniquely fabricated baskets. The canisters would be large enough to hold 68 boiling-water reactor fuel assemblies and 32 pressurized water reactor assemblies. The canisters would be seal welded shut at the reactor of origin and never reopened to expose the fuel. The MPC program reduces the risk of handling accidents at both interim storage sites and at the ultimate underground repository, as bare fuel is never directly handled by any staff other than fuel type experts.
The canisters would be moved around the reactor site in a shielding cask. They would then be inserted into a transportation cask and shipped by train to the Goshute site. When removed from the transportation cask, the canister would
be placed in a storage cask and remain there for as long as needed. When the underground repository is ready for operation, selected canisters would be put into transportation casks for shipment by rail to the final site. The canisters would then be placed directly in the ground in storage casks specifically designed for an underground environment.
The fuel would remain in the same canisters through all operations and would share the same cask regardless of fuel type, including cladding, intactness, length, enrichment, and burn-up. Large economy of scale would be achieved with minimal shipments and risk to the public. This would ensure a higher level of local government acceptance along the shipping route.
The need for uniformity in handling was reviewed among design choices, and a decision was made to store fuel only in vertical casks of the MPC type. This reduces the risks of fuel breakage (fuel in the reactor is operated in the vertical orientation) and increases the use of space at the interim storage facility. It also reduces the need for handling equipment to the type used in vertical storage.
Methods of Shipment
The need to reduce highway shipments and decrease frequency of total shipments dictates a railroad mode only. The railroads are privately owned and can restrict access to rights of way. They can handle much heavier loads than the highway system. A multimodal system was developed to ensure loading at the reactor site into the MPC configuration and the use of heavy haul to a railhead by either truck or barge. This integrated system has the potential to reduce the shipments transversing the United States to a small of fraction of all hazardous material shipments.
After a series of meetings among the U.S. utilities in 1994 and 1995, a limited liability company was formed to serve as the operating company throughout the lifetime of the project. The company was funded by the member utilities, and they were not committed to site use as a consequence. The facility is to be open to any domestic utility and use any certified cask design. At that time there were six vendors of spent fuel storage casks in the United States, and two major business decisions were made: (1) All U.S. vendors would be allowed to bid for site acceptance, with PFS paying a significant amount toward its site-specific licensing costs and (2) all U.S. architects and engineers (AEs) would be invited
to bid to become the site AE. Technical committees were set up to conduct interviews and included the best staff available in the industry.
The AE firm of Stone & Webster was selected for the site design. The Holtec and Sierra Nuclear firms were selected to provide casks. A site selection and negotiation process was completed to allow a license submittal by June 1997. The staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found the submission complete in July 1997, and the process began.
The final application included two methods of reaching the site: by rail, requiring construction of a common carrier rail line (the Great Salt Lake and Southern Railroad) to bridge the 32-mile gap between existing lines and the site, or by heavy-haul truck with an intermodal transfer point on the mainline railroad.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed the license application and gave a positive finding on safety through the final safety evaluation report in 2000. The final environmental impact statement was issued with a positive finding in 2001. The State of Utah objected to locating the facility in its proximity (though the Goshutes are a separate entity with sovereign immunity) and was allowed to intervene in the licensing process. Hearings on safety topics were held in the spring of 2000 and additional hearings on the final two safety topics (earthquakes and aircraft overflights) and environmental topics were held in spring 2002.
The licensing board made no final decisions on the hearing subjects until March through May 2003. All three financial issues were resolved in favor of PFS. Both seismic issues were resolved in favor of PFS. The F16 fighter aircraft overflights were decided against PFS, which now must review the consequences of crash and take any required protective actions. The rail line routing, an environmental contention, has not yet been ruled on.
The final license decision should be available in the summer of 2004.
The customers will be contracted and a schedule for construction, operations, and specific shipments will be set. The federal and local governments will be involved in final route selection. Construction will be on a bid basis with quality assurance oversight each step of the way. The fuel cars have been built to the national standard developed by PFS and the American Association of Railroads. Each car will be fabricated to exacting standards, including nondestructive testing of individual welds.
The entire train, including locomotives, will be operated and maintained by PFS. Features such as electropneumatic braking will provide for a rail shipment to achieve very high safety standards. Real-time transmittal to satellite will permit off-train support of security and safety needs on a continuous basis.
Site construction will include the installation of a 32-mile rail line. Once construction is complete, shipments can be coordinated at 200 casks per year from individual utilities to meet their specific needs of timing and size. Outbound shipments to the U.S. Department of Energy at Yucca Mountain or other locations as designated will be facilitated in the reverse order. This will permit selective handling of inbound shipments to the federal repository.
To accommodate the staff time restrictions at the originating sites the site will schedule shipments with specific customers about two years in advance. The first preference goes to owning members of PFS. The exact dates and routes of shipments will generally be held from public disclosure subject to the regulations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Transportation. A complete train, including locomotives, buffer cars, a security car, and one or more fuel cars, will be formed at the customer’s reactor site. The train will be operated by fully trained crews in active communication with a central dispatch. Proper notifications will be given when traversing local political boundaries.
The train will arrive at the site, and each car will be unloaded in the canister transfer building. The MPC will be removed from the transportation cask, installed in a storage cask, and moved to a location on a concrete slab. Eight wireless thermocouples will be installed. The cask will be continuously monitored during its multiple-year storage period. When the canister is ready for shipment to an underground repository, the process will be reversed. Canister selection will be at the discretion of the receiving agency. The shipment order will be arranged to accommodate the movement into the underground storage repository.
The decommissioning is totally prefunded and will begin about 20 years before final closure. As the inventory of onsite canisters begins to decrease from its maximum level, the most exposed storage casks will be dismantled and disposed. Manufacturers anticipate no activation levels requiring radiological disposal. Once the final offsite shipments have been made the central structures will be cleared of any radiological contamination (none is anticipated), and the surveys to authorize license determination will be started. These are three site characterizations. Once all radiological materials are removed, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will terminate the license. The Goshute people have the right to retain any structure and/or the railroad for future economic development. A fully provided nonradiological decommissioning fund will be available to dismantle and remove any structure the resident community designates. The soil and ground cover will be reshaped to the natural levels existing in the area. Even
the rail embankments will be removed. The commitment is to achieve a final closure that is totally satisfactory to all parties.
Thanks to John M. Parkyn for presentation assistance in Russia; Cindy Spears, Penny Schreiber, and Sarah Snodgrass for final document oversight; and the National Academies for their organizational role in addressing this critical topic on the environmental and energy future of the world.